Tori Rodriguez, MA, LPC
October 20, 2015
“It is associated with reduced levels of stress — which also has huge ramifications for physical health, reduced levels of depression and anxiety, increased resilience, increased engagement with learning for children and adolescents otherwise disengaged from the education system, improved self-esteem and increased capacity to engage socially,” she told Psychiatry Advisor.
Such effects have been found for not only being immersed in nature — like in the woods or a park — but also for looking out the window at natural scenes and even simply looking at photos of them. One recent study,1 published in 2013 in Environmental Science & Technology, investigated the impact of different types of images on stress recovery. Participants viewed slides of scenes from either nature or a built environment for 10 minutes, and then they completed a task designed to induce mental stress.
The researchers found that participants who had viewed nature scenes had higher activity of the parasympathetic nervous system — the “rest and digest” branch of the autonomic nervous system, which helps balance the activity of the sympathetic, or “fight or flight,” branch — than the other participants. Newer research suggests that the more awe-inspiring the scene, the better.
In a 2015 study,2 people who looked at scenes of awe-inspiring nature (grand mountain ranges and giant waterfalls, for example) had an even greater increase in mood than those who viewed “mundane” nature scenes such as parks and gardens. The awe-inspiring scenes also encouraged a more pro-social value orientation among participants.
These benefits “seems to be related to the visual structure of nature, which seems to be relaxing for our minds. The mechanisms behind this are not yet clear, although my speculation is that nature contains a lot of repetitive structure, which is ‘easy’ on our minds,” said study co-author Yannick Joye, PhD, a researcher at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. The mood improvement was found to be mediated by the feelings of awe, which can “pull you away from your daily petty concerns, and this could improve your mood — which is actually often determined by those small concerns.”
The sounds of nature appear to have similar benefits, according to a 2013 study3 showing that hearing recorded sounds from nature had similar effects on recovery from a stressful situation as the study involving nature images. As for time in the outdoors, researchers from Nippon Medical School in Japan compared the effects of walking through a forest versus walking through a city. Their results4show that “forest bathing,” as they call it, 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.
These effects may be linked with an inborn need of humans to connect with nature. The biophilia hypothesis by Wilson and Kellert claim that we “have an innate love for the natural world, universally felt by all, and resulting at least in part from our genetic make-up and evolutionary history.”5 Our separation from nature has been relatively recent. In the last 250 years, Townsend points out, and we have not adapted to this division.
She believes that the growing disconnection with our natural environment is exacerbating the escalating rates of mental illness and that mental health professionals should be prescribing time in nature as often as possible, as well as advocating on the policy level to help ensure access to green spaces for everyone.
“For this to happen, high quality parks, gardens and nature reserves need to be nearby, served by good public transport, affordable, safe, attractive, with good signage and interpretive information, well managed and maintained, and accessible to people with different physical needs,” she says. “If we are to prevent an upsurge in mental health issues, especially among children, we need to re-engage humans with nature as a matter of urgency.”
Tori Rodriguez, MA, LPC, is a psychotherapist and freelance writer based in Atlanta.
- Brown, DK, Barton, JL, Gladwell VF. Viewing Nature Scenes Positively Affects Recovery of Autonomic Function Following Acute-Mental Stress. Environmental Science & Technology; 2013; 47(11): 5562–5569.
- Joye Y, Bolderdijk JW. An exploratory study into the effects of extraordinary nature on emotions, mood, and prosociality. Frontiers in Psychology; 2015; 5: 1577.
- Annerstedt M, Jönsson P, Wallergård M, et al. Inducing physiological stress recovery with sounds of nature in a virtual reality forest–results from a pilot study. Physiology & Behavior; 2013; 118:240-50.
- Li Q, Morimoto K, Kobayashi M, et al. Visiting a forest, but not a city, increases human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins. International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology; 2008; 21(1):117-27.
- Bratman GN, Hamilton JP, Daily GC. The impacts of nature experience on human cognitive function and mental health. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences; 2012; 1249:118-36.
This article was retrieved from: http://www.psychiatryadvisor.com/mood-disorders/nature-cognitive-anxiety-depression-mood/article/448018/3/