The Psychological Benefits of Being in Nature

Many headlines proclaim the benefits of getting outside—from The New York Times’ article “How Walking in Nature Changes the Brain,” to Business Insider’s “11 Scientifically Proven Reasons You Should Be Spending Less Time in the Office.”

Unsurprisingly, the research all shows that nature is good for us. As stress-related disorders and pharmaceutical reliance increase, the need for nature has never been greater.

If this is news to you, you should probably begin with Get Outside 101: the ever-popular Nature Rx commercial. If that doesn’t shed enough levity to the common-sense reasoning behind the nature fix, then read onwards for science-backed reasoning.

Nature Improves Brain Functioning

From anecdotal accounts to peer-reviewed scientific studies, it’s clear that spending time outside changes, and improves, our brain function. And this is separate from any effects of exercise, which we’ve known for awhile, is good for mental health.

Founded in 2013, the Great Outdoor Lab, a think tank based out of UC Berkeley, has the goal of researching and proving the health benefits of spending time outside.

As told in Outside Magazine, the Lab’s founders, Stacy Bare, an Iraq veteran and Sierra Club Outdoors director, and psychologist Dacher Keltner, are close to publishing the results from a three-year study in which they show that veterans experience a decrease of PTSD symptoms (as much as 35%) after a two-day rafting trip.

Reducing reliance on pharmaceutical solutions is an enticing prospect for sufferers of PTSD, anxiety, depression, mood disorders, insomnia, and ADHD. Even just looking at natural outdoor scenes has been found to benefit patients with a variety of psychological related conditions.

Spending time in nature or looking at nature pictures is, of course, more desirable than taking more pills. As told in Outside, the long-term goal of insurance companies paying for guided trips instead of Xanax is a tantalizing future for preventative and natural medicine.

The Real Impacts of Awe

The nature-brain functioning research is based on how awe triggers positive physiological and mental health changes when people spend time in nature. Defined as a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder, the emotion of awe is ubiquitous and prolific in nature, especially in the National Parks of the U.S.

Additionally, the natural environment plays an important role in addressing the six existential anxieties of identity: happiness, isolation, meaning in life, freedom, and death—a perspective coined as Eco-Existential Positive Psychology.

So the research by Stanford PhD candidate, Gregory Bratman, that nature can improve affect, and decrease brooding, which includes self-critical thoughts that lead to depression, instills plenty of reasons to get outside!

How Do We Define “Time in Nature”?

This all being said, a recent study in BioScience proclaims the need to quantify the “dose of nature” necessary to enhance brain functioning and overall well-being. In order to push cities to fund more green space and to encourage doctors to prescribe nature time in lieu of pharmaceuticals, for stress or more serious mental disorders and diseases, like ADHD and schizophrenia, we still need to quantify and qualify “nature time.”

In the meantime, it’s safe to say that the next time you’re feeling down, walking in the park is better for you than eating another bowl of ice cream.

How often do you find yourself outside? Share with us below.

About the Author

Clare Gallagher is an ultrarunner for The North Face and travels extensively for races and philanthropic work. She studied coral ecology at Princeton University where she also ran cross country and track. Clare has taught English in Thailand where she started a non-profit environmental stewardship program, she has scribed in emergency rooms across Denver, and she writes regularly for various running blogs.

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