The Benefits of Nature on Mental Health & Well being
December marks the beginning of the wonderful Kiwi summer. Long sunny days (we hope) combined with lengthy daylight hours, makes summer the best time to get outside and enjoy the wonderful sights Aotearoa has to offer. Therefore we wanted to share with you the mental health benefits of exposure to nature. The most beautiful thing about exposure to nature is it doesn’t cost a thing and it is generally accessible to most people.
In our growing age of technology there is mounting evidence that contact with nature has significant positive impacts on mental health. It is believed that connecting with nature is associated with reduced levels of stress – which we know also has huge ramification for physical health, alongside reduced levels of depression and anxiety. Evidence also suggests it can increase resilience, increase our engagement with learning – especially in children and adolescents, improve self-esteem and increase our capacity to engage socially. These effects have not only been recorded when being immersed in nature – like at the park or the beach – but also simply looking out the window at natural scenes (which, let’s be honest there’s no shortage of that in New Zealand!) One study last year found that even looking at pictures of awe-inspiring nature (huge mountain ranges and giant waterfalls, for example) caused an increase in mood. Interestingly, researchers discovered that people who had viewed these pictures had increased activity in the parasympathetic nervous system (that’s the “rest and digest” branch which balances out your “fight or flight” branch) and the more awe-inspiring the image, even more activity in the parasympathetic nervous system was detected.
Despite this, it is still a little unclear as to why simply looking at pictures can produce this effect, however it is expected to be related to the visual structure of nature which is relaxing and ‘easy’ on our minds. It has also been found that the sounds of nature appear to have similar benefits. Interestingly one study conducted in Japan compared the effects of walking through a forest versus walking through a city. Their results significantly supported that being exposed to nature has its benefits; as walking through the forest not only led to decreased stress hormones, but actually increased the natural killer cells of the immune system and the expression of anti-cancer proteins.
With mental illness increasing throughout the world and our over reliance on technology, perhaps our modern lifestyles aren’t necessarily great when it comes to our mental health. So why not get outside this summer, make the great outdoors part of your routine, and notice the benefits of connecting with nature.