Mental Health Benefits of Nature Connectedness: How Time Outdoors Can Improve Your Well-Being
During the rise of COVID-19, countless people across the country retreated to the outdoors to cope with the social and mental impact of the pandemic. Many of those confined to their homes and limited in their access to social interaction found peace and relaxation by spending more time outside. We understand that outdoor activity is beneficial for our physical health and cognitive functioning, but in recent years, research has suggested time in nature can also improve your mental health.
Being outdoors is good for your physical health, yes, but this notion extends beyond just getting some fresh air. Research shows that nature can positively affect your well-being when you feel a sense of connectedness with the outdoors. Nature connectedness refers to how you perceive and experience the world around you; this dynamic occurs when you feel an emotional connection to your natural surroundings.
You can foster a connection with nature on your own using the senses: listening meditatively to birdsong, planting a flowerbed in your backyard, or going on a walk at your community park. The key to getting in touch with the outdoors is to look for and appreciate the beauty of nature. Regularly fostering a relationship with your natural environment can promote feelings of calmness, enhance reflection and concentration, and even alleviate symptoms of mental illness.
How Nature Affects Mental Health
Generally, research shows that people who have a strong connection with nature are happier with their lives. On a deeper level, engaging with nature has the potential to improve symptoms of mental illness, like anxiety and depression, and can play a large role in experiential therapy. Simply increasing exposure to natural sunlight is a common recommendation for people with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Treatments that prescribe certain activities done in nature can also be effective in treating symptoms of depression and aiding with addiction recovery.
Spending time outdoors can even lessen feelings of loneliness and isolation, two feelings people struggle with when lacking social interaction; perhaps that is why so many of us felt the need to get outside during the pandemic. Nature connectedness is also associated with reduced feelings of stress and anger. Scientists have developed a few theories about how a connection to nature has this effect on us. One of the most prominent theories–the biophilia hypothesis–argues that since our ancestors evolved to adapt in the wild and survive off their surroundings, we humans today are instinctively drawn to nature because of its ability to regulate the nervous system.
What Can You Do?
There are a variety of ways you can build a strong relationship with nature for your mental well-being. You can build a flowerbed in your backyard or start a garden; growing flowers to attract pollinators and vegetables that you can eat can be a rewarding experience. Additionally, you can go on nature walks at local parks, or try hiking to get more active and see some awe-inspiring views.
Other activities you can do in nature to enrich your mental and emotional well-being may include…
- Picnicking or eating meals outdoors
- Practicing photography
- Exercising (jogging, yoga, etc.)
Even if you cannot go outdoors, you can still get in touch with nature. Consider bringing the outdoors into your home by caring for houseplants, or tap into your creative side by writing a poem or painting a landscape you’re fond of. Alternatively, you can listen to a podcast that plays nature sounds or watch a nature documentary. These tips can be especially helpful strategies to proactively care for your mental health if you live in an area with little access to green space.
Green Space Counts, Too
Oftentimes, heavily populated and urban areas do not have easy access to undisturbed natural spaces. If you live in or near a city, you may have heard the term “green space” at some point in recent years. Green space refers to areas that are dedicated to incorporating natural elements, like trees, grass, shrubbery, and wildlife into the landscape of an urban area. Research suggests that children raised in neighborhoods with access to abundant green space are less likely to develop mental illnesses and psychiatric disorders later in life.
Though access to biodiverse natural spaces is ideal, green space in urban communities can still benefit your mental and emotional health by fostering a connection with not just your natural environment, but also the people around you. Scientists believe that this combination of community with nature and other people has the power to enhance your overall well-being. Ultimately Fostering a connection with nature through activities as simple as walking or going on a picnic can offer effective ways to alleviate stress, loneliness, and symptoms of mental illness.