April 21, 2020
Written by: Carolyn Keating
There’s no denying that it’s a stressful time for everyone right now. Whether you’re cooped up in a tiny apartment all by yourself, trapped with no escape from your family, or risking your health to provide essential services (thank you!), the current situation isn’t great for anyone’s physical or mental well-being. The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to result in increases of anxiety, depression, and other mental health consequences1. Despite orders from many governments to stay at home and only go out for necessities, most have allowed people to continue to spend time outdoors. In addition to providing an outlet for exercise to maintain physical health, being outside can also improve mental health.
Nature can be experienced in more ways than you might first expect. If asked to picture nature, your mind likely wanders to pristine forests, jagged mountain ranges, or vast oceans. Expansive wilderness is most certainly nature, but smaller spaces with human influence count too. An urban park, private backyard, or even a potted plant on a windowsill can all be considered nature. And you don’t even have to go outside to experience it. Looking out a window, admiring landscape photographs, or even virtual reality simulations are all ways people can perceive and interact with the natural world2.
These nature experiences can affect mental health in many ways. They have been linked to increased positive moods and happiness, and decreased negative moods. Nature experiences are associated with improved cognitive function, memory, attention, and impulse inhibition. The incidence of disorders like ADHD, anxiety, and depression are also reduced with exposure to nature. Contributing factors to this decrease may be nature’s link to improved sleep and reduced stress2.
One group of people feeling particularly stressed right now are those trying to balance working from home with childcare or schooling responsibilities. A study of working mothers in Taiwan suggests that leisure activities in green spaces (like walks and park visits) can relieve the stress of work and family responsibilities spilling over into each other, and increase positive emotions3. On the other side of the stuck-at-home spectrum, people living by themselves may be feeling particularly alone at present. While social connectedness certainly plays a large role in well-being, so does nature exposure. A study from the UK looked at the effect of the amount of nearby nature, nature visit frequency, and social connectedness over a 7 day period on self-reported well-being. The researchers found that people with low social connectedness still reported high levels of well-being and were less likely to suffer from depression if there were high levels of nearby nature, suggesting that nature exposure can “buffer” against the lack of social connectedness4.
You don’t even have to go outside for very long to reap the benefits of nature. For instance, a study in Japan found that even a short 15 minute walk in an urban park resulted in lower levels of negative emotions and anxiety, and decreased the body’s “fight or flight” response compared to a walk in a city area5. In fact, the Japanese practice of “forest bathing” has taken off around the world as a way to improve physical and mental health.
Even if you can’t get outside, correlational studies have shown that window views that include elements of nature are associated with better memory, attention, and impulse inhibition, as well as higher levels of well-being, compared to windows without natural views6,7. Even images and sounds of natural environments can lower stress and negative emotions after participants are subjected to stressful situations8,9.
But how exactly do nature experiences to lead to these improvements in mental health at the level of the brain? While few studies have examined the question, one group of scientists used MRI to examine a specific brain area before and after 90 minute walks in either a natural or urban environment. They wanted to know whether the subgenual prefrontal cortex (sgPFC), a brain region involved in sadness, behavioral withdrawal, and negative self-reflective processes, might display different activity patterns depending on the setting of the walk. And that’s just what they found: the sgPFC was less active in participants who went on the nature walk, and these subjects also reported experiencing less rumination, a harmful thought pattern that is associated with a heightened risk for depression and other mental illnesses10.
There are some caveats to these benefits from nature. Many of these studies analyzed small numbers of people, so whether their results can be generalized to larger populations remains to be seen. The benefits of nature are certain to vary from individual to individual, depending on factors like age, socioeconomic status, and preferences2. So if you’re someone who knows they hate being outside or it makes you feel unsafe, then going for a walk in the park is unlikely to make you feel better. But for those who do enjoy nature, time spent in your backyard garden, strolling through a public park (while observing social distancing and wearing a mask!), or even binge-watching Planet Earth could make this pandemic a little easier to bear.
- Galea, S., Merchant, R. M. & Lurie, N. The Mental Health Consequences of COVID-19 and Physical Distancing: The Need for Prevention and Early Intervention. JAMA Intern. Med. (2020) doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.1562.
- Bratman, G. N. et al. Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective. Sci. Adv. 5, (2019).
- Chang, P. J. & Bae, S. Y. Positive emotional effects of leisure in green spaces in alleviating work–family spillover in working mothers. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 14, (2017).
- Cartwright, B. D. S., White, M. P. & Clitherow, T. J. Nearby nature ‘buffers’ the effect of low social connectedness on adult subjective wellbeing over the last 7 days. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 15, (2018).
- Song, C., Ikei, H., Igarashi, M., Takagaki, M. & Miyazaki, Y. Physiological and psychological effects of a walk in Urban parks in fall. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 12, 14216–14228 (2015).
- Taylor, A. F., Kuo, F. E. & Sullivan, W. C. Views of nature and self-discipline : evidence from inner city children. J. Environ. Psychol. 22, 49–63 (2002).
- Kaplan, R. The Nature of the View from Home. Environ. Behav. – Env. BEHAV 33, 507–542 (2001).
- Ulrich, R. et al. Stress Recovery During Exposure to Natural and Urban Environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology. 11: 201-230. J. Environ. Psychol. 11, 201–230 (1991).
- Brown, D. K., Barton, J. L. & Gladwell, V. F. Viewing nature scenes positively affects recovery of autonomic function following acute-mental stress. Environ. Sci. Technol. 47, 5562–5569 (2013).
- Bratman, G. N., Hamilton, J. P., Hahn, K. S., Daily, G. C. & Gross, J. J. Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 112, 8567–8572 (2015).
Cover image from Pixabay.