The power of nature: the mental health benefits / by The Green Medium

Taking a walk alongside a serene lake or a hike through the forest has long been known to create a sense of peace and relaxation. But studies have shown that exposure to the natural environment could lead to a lower risk of depression.

As the world progresses and technology thrives, the global population is increasingly living in urban settings. Urbanization and the disconnect from nature is on the rise, and not so coincidentally, mental illness. In fact, city dwellers are more likely to develop anxiety, mood disorders, and schizophrenia, in contrast to their rural neighbours. It seems, therefore, that exposure to nature is linked to mental health and overall wellbeing.

A Stanford study found scientific evidence that by taking a walk in nature for 90 minutes, there is decreased neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex of the brain, in comparison to the other participant group, in which participants took a 90 minute walk along a traffic-heavy road. The subgenual prefrontal cortex of the brain activates during rumination, which is repetitive thinking clouded by negative emotions.

The results of this study are fundamental in that they show that exposure to nature can help with reducing the symptoms of depression. In particular, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), in which the majority of those diagnosed with SAD experience their symptoms during the dreary-skied months of the winter, can be alleviated through exposure to sunlight and artificial light therapy. Because SAD is primarily caused by the lack of Vitamin D that is lost during the winter months when the main source of it, sunlight, is unavailable, it is a prime example of a psychological disorder that is directly caused ― and remedied ― by nature.

So if nature is beneficial to mental health, what can we do with this evidence? Besides encouraging others to engage in nature, this can be difficult for those who are financially unstable and cannot escape the city often for a weekend camping trip, or for those who must work many hours in order to financially sustain themselves and cannot afford the time off. To ensure that the mental health benefits of nature are not exclusively for those who can afford it (like professional treatment for psychological disorders is in many parts of the world), urban planners and local governments can work to integrate accessible nature into city cores, such as parks and hiking trails. The use of nature as a form of therapy is something that requires more scientific research, but it shows definite promise as a habit that should be incorporated into everyday life in order to reduce the risk of depression and overall increase wellbeing.

- Jenny Le