The benefit of nature on our mental health is enormous. The natural world directly affects positive changes in the brain and entire nervous system. Spending even brief amounts of time in nature, doing something that you find pleasant, can substantially reduce anxiety, stress, and depression and improve total well-being.
How Does Being in Nature Improve Someone’s Mental Health?
Being in nature improves mental health in part because it gets us away from our indoor environment. Studies have found that most Americans spend most of their time indoors.1 Furthermore, most of that indoor time is now spent with technological devices.2 Excessive indoor and screen time can negatively affect our total well-being in terms of physical and mental health.3
Spending time in nature has been shown to have the following benefits:2,3,4,5,6
- Boost mood
- Increase general feelings of happiness and well-being
- Create pleasant emotions and thoughts
- Bring a sense balance to our lives
- Inspire a sense of awe, wonder, and connection to something greater as we experience connection to natural life energy
- Generate feelings of calm
- Improve our ability to pay attention and concentrate
- Foster empathy
- Reduce the risk of psychiatric disorders
- Lower stress
- Lessen anxiety and fear
- Calm the nervous system, deactivating the fight-or-flight response
Why Is Being in Nature Beneficial?
One hypothesis explains that nature is beneficial because we have an innate drive to be in nature because that is how humans have lived until very recently in our history.2 Other theories propose that being in nature reduces our fight-or-flight response. According to the attention restoration theory, people pay attention more naturally and fully in a natural setting, which refuels our cognitive resources, improving our ability to complete tasks and nurturing the quality of our thoughts.2,5
Being in nature, breathing in the fresh air, soaking up natural sunlight rather than artificial indoor lighting, and experiencing soothing sights and sounds is beneficial for everyone’s mental health. For those living in urban areas, getting out into nature is especially vital to well-being.
In addition, recent ecological problems and climate change have been a source of stress and climate anxiety, especially in younger populations. Getting out in nature and connecting with the natural environment can help ease this stress and even activate positive change for people experiencing the fear of eco-anxiety.
Is Being Inside Bad for Mental Health?
Americans spend an average of 87% of their time in enclosed buildings and 6% of their time in enclosed vehicles—in total, over 90% of their waking lives indoors.1 Furthermore, most of that indoor time is now spent with technological devices. Most Americans spend more than 10 hours every day in front of screens.2 Excessive indoor and screen time can negatively affect our total well-being, both physical and mental health.3
Being inside, interacting primarily with technology is associated with negative experiences such as:4
- Loss of empathy and a sense of altruism
- Higher risk of death
As we’re spending so much time indoors and less time in nature, prescriptions for mental health conditions continue to rise.7 Psychiatric medication isn’t always prescribed because it is effective and the right choice. A survey of general physicians in the United Kingdom revealed an alarming trend: About 93 % of surveyed doctors admitted that they “prescribed antidepressants against their better judgement owing to a lack of alternatives.”7
Please note, however, that medication can be necessary and the decision to take it is a highly personal one that should be made with your doctor. Never stop taking any medication without medical advice, as abruptly stopping can be dangerous.
Mental Health in Urban Environments
Currently, more than half of all people live in urban areas, and projections indicate that by 2050, more than 70% of humans will live in cities.8 For reasons still unknown, living in urban areas is tied to an increased risk of mental illness.8 Compared with people living in rural areas, those who live in cities have a higher risk of developing anxiety and mood disorders. Additionally, people who are born and grow up in cities are twice as likely to develop schizophrenia than those born and raised in rural areas.9
Being in nature can mitigate the negative impacts of cities on mental health. In a 2015 study, Bratman and colleagues asked participants, who lived in an urban area of California, to walk for 50 minutes either along a trail in a natural area or along busy city streets.10 Nature strollers experienced benefits that the city walkers did not.
Those who walked in nature:
- Experienced a drop in anxiety
- Reduced ruminations (repetitive, negative thoughts)
- Increased or maintained positive mood
- Improved their working memory and performance on assigned tasks
Adding natural spaces to cities impacts lives in ways that facilitate mental health. Adding green spaces in community housing developments has been shown to bring people together, strengthen support systems; build coping skills for dealing with the stress of urban living; and even reduce aggressive behavior, violence, and crime.11 We need to spend time in green and blue spaces for optimal functioning. Spending time in nature brings numerous mental health benefits.
How Being in Nature Relieves Symptoms of Anxiety, Depression, & Stress
Being in nature affects our brain and entire physiology. The sights, sounds, and smells directly affect our nervous system, deactivating the sympathetic nervous system responsible for the fight-or-flight stress response and activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the rest-and-digest response.
Here are specific examples of how being in nature relieves symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress:5,12,13
- Breathing becomes slower and deeper
- Hormonal and neurotransmitter activity change (including a drop in the production and circulation of the stress hormone cortisol)
- Blood pressure lowers
- Heart rate slows
- Thoughts and emotions shift away from worry and negativity
Studies show that our environment directly impacts our stress levels, either increasing or decreasing them, and as such affect our mood, nervous system, endocrine system, and immune system.4
Where we spend our time matters. Being constantly indoors and/or living in crowded, noisy, polluted cities can increase stress and exacerbate mental health disorders. Stepping outdoors and experiencing nature counters this and reduces stress and anxiety and alleviates depression.
Natural settings impact us at our very core. Being outside in green or blue spaces with other living things positively changes the brain and entire nervous system to improve our well-being on a deep level.
Other Mental Health Benefits
In addition to relieving anxiety and depression symptoms, being in nature has other mental health benefits as well.
Spending time in nature has been shown to:2,5,11,14
- Reduce the symptoms of ADHD
- Reduce aggressive behavior
- Increase self-confidence and self-esteem
- Foster social connection and decrease loneliness
Regarding loneliness, it seems as though nature may be as suitable a companion as another human being. Lack of social connectedness is linked to decreased well-being, but nature, it seems, can serve as a substitute for human connection. People with little social connectedness reported feelings of mental health and well-being when they spent time in nature.14
Given that nature is crucial to mental health, it’s important for all of us to get out and embrace the natural world. Here are some ways to do just that.
How to Get Outdoors—Even When You Don’t Feel Like It
Spending time outdoors is an option for mental health treatment and can be a vital part of recovery.7 Nature offers a pleasant way to improve our mental health and well-being, and it’s something humans are instinctively drawn to. According to a study cited in the book Healing Gardens, more than 67% of people turn to nature for relief when they’re under stress.4
Here are some tips to help you, too, get outdoors for a mental health boost even when you don’t feel like doing it:
1. Think Small
You don’t have to spend countless hours outside in order to reap nature’s benefits. Start small, and enjoy nature in bursts.15 According to a 2019 study of nearly 20,000 people, just two hours spent outdoors every week is enough to boost health and well-being at any age and foster cognitive development in children.16 Getting outside just 20-30 minutes three times per week or enjoying a weekend outdoors is enough to reduce symptoms of depression; the key is to simply begin making nature a part of your lifestyle.12
Don’t feel that you have to trek remote backcountry for days to reduce stress. Numerous studies show that even very short exposure to nature in green urban settings is beneficial.2 Even if you can’t or don’t want to go far and fancy for lengthy periods of time, that’s okay. Just begin by stepping outside and gazing at something natural near you, such as a tree or planter filled with blooming flowers or the stars at night. Gradually extend the amount of time you spend outdoors until getting outside is a regular part of your life.
Also, make getting outside easy by doing it during the time of day that works best for you.15 For some, that means heading outdoors when they are already feeling energized and motivated. Others, in contrast, find that they prefer to use nature as a pick-me-up, going out when they’re tired or particularly stressed.
2. Enlist a Nature Buddy or Go Solo
People benefit from being in nature, reducing depression and stress and improving their outlook on life, regardless of whether they get out in groups or on their own.12 If scheduling hikes or strolls through a park with a friend or loved one keeps you motivated, then by all means enjoy the outdoors with others. Even if you’re talking together rather than silently gazing at flower petals floating on the breeze, you’ll still benefit from being in nature.
Alternatively, you might find that joining local groups or nature programs is enjoyable and allows you to go places you wouldn’t otherwise experience on your own. A simple online search for nature groups in your area or visiting local nature centers and parks and recreation departments can help you find nature groups you’d like to participate in. On the other hand, if you’re not a fan of doing things with other people, go ahead and get out on your own. The benefits occur whether you’re with others or on your own.
3. Do Something You Enjoy
Being in nature means just that—getting outdoors near land or water and all the sights, sounds, and other sensations the planet has to offer. There are no rules for how you must experience nature in order to improve or maintain your mental health. The idea really is to boost your well-being rather than adding stress by trying to do something you don’t enjoy.
You don’t have to get dirty to be outside, nor do you have to bike, run, hike, climb, swim, or do any other activity you loathe. Any outdoor experience that removes you from overstimulating city settings or separates you from your screens for a while is valuable.12 Discover what you find relaxing or invigorating, and pursue that.12 15 Even do what you already love doing and take it outdoors. Read a book, practice yoga, or engage in creative projects outside in the sun and fresh air.
4. Grow or Nurture Something Living
Experiencing nature doesn’t mean always having to go somewhere to do it. Turn your own surroundings into a green space by starting a small garden, growing a flower in a pot, or keeping a houseplant.15,16 Add some blue space by caring for a fish (Betta fish or goldfish are fairly easy to care for and don’t require fancy equipment).
Never underestimate the power of any living, natural thing to benefit your life. Various studies conducted in office spaces, schools, and hospitals reveal that a humble plant in a room considerably and positively affects mental health, particularly anxiety and stress.4
5. Can’t Get Out? Look at Images of Nature or Listen to Nature Sounds
There may be times when even if you want to get outside, you simply are unable to do it. Take heart, for even images of nature or nature sounds trigger the relaxation response. Researchers conducted three different studies comparing actual nature experiences to viewing nature on TV.
They found that while actual natural settings brought more pronounced benefits, both experiencing and viewing nature creates positive emotions, improves attention, and increases a sense of connectedness to nature.17 Other studies have demonstrated that listening to soundtracks with nature sounds is beneficial, impacting the brain and improving attention and concentration and reducing the tendency to ruminate over problems.14,18
Look at pictures you’ve taken or photos in magazines. Find videos of natural settings on YouTube. Also, many aquariums offer free livestream feeds of their exhibits so you can enjoy fish, penguins, and other living creatures in real time if you are unable to go outside.
6. Wherever You Go & Whatever You Do, Do It Mindfully
Maximize your experience and heighten the mental health benefits of nature by immersing yourself fully in your experience. Resist the temptation to talk on the phone or text while you’re walking along a nature path. Instead, practice mindfulness by experiencing your surroundings with your whole being, using all your senses to fully impact the nervous system and reduce stress.5
Deepen your mindfulness practice in nature by meditating.2,19 Meditation is a form of mindfulness, but whereas mindfulness can be done “on the go,” giving your complete attention to whatever you are doing in any given moment, meditation is the formal, structured practice of sitting or moving intentionally while concentrating on something specific.
Meditating in nature, focusing either on the sensation of breathing in the fresh air; the feel of the sun and moving air on your skin; the sounds of birds, bugs, or leaves rattling in the breeze; or the minute details of an object whose beauty you appreciate can be a powerful way to calm your entire brain and body to bring balance, clarity, and well-being to your life.
Pertinent Studies on Nature & Mental Health
Many studies have been done pointing to the mental health benefits of nature:
- A study reported in the Journal of Health Psychology in 2012 found that being in nature boosts psychological well-being and vitality and instills people with a deeper sense of meaning.20
- Having physical contact with the earth, such as standing barefoot on the ground—a practice known as grounding or earthing—has been shown to lower stress and anxiety, reduce inflammation, improve sleep, and boost mood according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Inflammation Research.21
- Three different studies conducted as part of a larger examination into the effects of nature on mental health and reported in 2008 in the journal Environment and Behavior indicate that being in nature fosters a sense of connectedness, creates positive emotions, improves people’s ability to concentrate, and helps people reflect on life problems.17
- The University of Minnesota reports in one study that researchers used fMRI images to see brain activity when people viewed nature scenes or urban scenes and found that nature scenes increased activity in parts of the brain associated with love and empathy, whereas urban scenes activated areas of the brain associated with anxiety and fear.4
- In a 2015 study, scientists found that being in nature decreases activity in the part of the brain connected with rumination; being in nature helped people feel better by reducing tendencies to overthink about negative situations.8
- A separate study published in 2015 compared brain activity in people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural or urban setting and revealed that spending time in nature reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area associated with repetitive negative and stressful thinking.12
- In a study comparing the effects of listening to nature sounds versus artificial sounds, brain scans indicated that when listening to the sounds of nature, people’s attention is directed outward toward those sounds and their brains and bodies responded with relaxation; however,when listening to artificial sounds, such as those heard indoors and in urban settings, brain activity was directed inward similar to brain patterns seen in anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).13
- In 2019, researchers in Denmark, on studying data from over 900,000 people born between 1985 and 2003, discovered that children who lived in areas with more green space had a decreased risk of depression, mood disorders, substance use disorders, eating disorders, and schizophrenia, while kids in urban areas with little accessible green space had a 55% higher risk of developing mental illness.22 Exposure to urban environments is also associated with attention deficits such as those seen in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.23
- Numerous studies have demonstrated that urban green spaces like parks and community gardens are therapeutic, increasing emotional health, cognitive operations, and immune system functioning while decreasing our physiological fight-or-flight stress response.24 Researchers who added plants to the yards of people living in a poverty-stricken urban area in the United Kingdom discovered that even this bit of nature added to people’s lives improved positive emotions, facilitated relaxation, and fostered a sense of pride.25
Final Thoughts on the Benefits of Nature on Mental Health
As mentioned, over a thousand studies document the benefits of nature on our mental health and well-being. While it’s nice to have the knowledge that getting outside is good for us, we really don’t need studies to tell us that experiencing green and blue spaces is calming and energizing. Doing so is also often free, doesn’t have to require special equipment, and can be done in small bits of time throughout your day. Conduct your own experiment. Challenge yourself to experience some form of nature every day, and adjust the time spent to meet your needs of the day.
Benefits of Nature on Mental Health Infographics