Do you have a particular place you like to go walking or exploring? Or somewhere you enjoy sitting outside?
Being in nature away from smartphones, social media, the constant bombardment of the news, and the daily grind, has immense psychological benefits. As important as it is to nourish your body with healthy, real foods, it’s also important to replenish your mind. You can use nature as medicine to fill up your cup so to speak.
Nature is a place of peace and serenity– greatly improving health and well-being. A growing body of research demonstrates positive physiological and psychological effects nature has on your body and mind. You can take advantage of the healing properties of mother nature in a few different ways.
(Note: The only caveat is if you are in a situation outdoors where you’re facing imminent danger).
In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.
Mind-Body Awareness to External Stimuli
Subconsciously your body is always responding to stimuli in your external environment. Either releasing stress hormones like cortisol or activating parts of your brain that produce feelings of joy and relaxation.
Research doesn’t have to prove it for you to recognize it’s happening. An easy exercise to get you in a mindful state of awareness is to consider the two following scenarios.
Busy Urban Setting
Imagine you’re in a big city with congested traffic, sidewalks packed with pedestrians coming and going, you hear sounds of ambulances, car horns, the beeping of construction vehicles backing up, people shouting, brakes screeching, a loud crash etc.
You’ve probably experienced this before and may even live it on a daily basis. Notice how your body feels while thinking about a busy city. Are your breaths shallow and fast? Is your heart racing and your body tense?
Being immersed in a fast-paced, noisy setting automatically increases your blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing because it puts your body in a fight or flight response. You feel stressed.
Imagine taking a walk in nature. You’re surrounded by breathtaking mountain views overlooking the crystal clear waters of a big lake. You see a family of ducks gracefully glide across the surface. You smell fresh scents of pine, flowers, clean mountain air, and feel the warmth of the sun. The only sound you hear is the ripple of water as the ducks glide across glass-like waters.
Notice how your body feels. Are you more relaxed? Is your breathing a bit easier and pulse a bit slower? Connecting with nature allows you to enter a state of relaxation.
Maybe you have a scenic spot you like to visit to seek some calm. Even if it’s your own backyard, a park down the street, or a trail across from work. Do you find you go to this place to unwind?
If you can’t remember the last time you intentionally spent time in nature, now more than ever is the perfect opportunity to soak up the advantages.
What Exactly Is Nature?
Before we explore the benefits mother nature has to offer, let’s look at what’s even considered nature.
Nature by definition is the physical world– including plants, animals, the landscape, and other characteristics and creations of the earth. Looking at it from a bird’s eye view (figuratively and I suppose literally), two types of natural environments exist– blue spaces and green spaces.
BLUE SPACE VERSUS GREEN SPACE
The names blue and green imply the type of landscape. For instance, blue spaces are areas within nature that contain water like oceans, lakes, rivers etc. Green spaces encompass the woods, grassy fields, parks and so on.
Most research conducted on nature and health is heavily focused on green spaces such as forests and parks. However, emerging studies are also looking at blue spaces and discovering similar and sometimes even better benefits in these watery landscapes.
Nature Research is Gaining Ground
Taking a stroll outside on a scenic path, hiking in the mountains, or next to the ocean provides more than just physical gains. The mental and psychological benefits are immense.
Research regarding the benefits of nature is vastly growing. Being outside allows us to disconnect from our daily distractions and reconnect with our surroundings.
ONE SCENIC VIEW OPENED THE DOORS TO NATURE RESEARCH
One of the most significant studies conducted on nature was by Roger Ulrich who had spent much of his childhood in gloomy hospital settings due to kidney disease. While in the hospital he found comfort looking at a pine tree a friend had placed outside his hospital window. Later on, he set out to study the possible effects nature had on patients.
Ulrich poured over 10 years worth of hospital charts of patients who recovered from gallbladder surgery in identical rooms, with windows overlooking two completely different scenes– a forest of deciduous trees versus a view of a brick wall. The findings were astonishing and led to more questions.
Patients with a view of trees recovered quicker, needed less pain medication, were in better spirits, and in general, these patients were discharged from the hospital almost a day earlier. This occurred even when comparing patients who had identical cases but were looking at two different window scenes.
His findings led to an explosion of thousands of repeated studies and expansions on his original research. More than 100 studies have looked at the possible mental-health benefits of exposure to the natural world. Communities across the U.S. have started Walk with a Doc programs and healing gardens are popping up in various healthcare settings.
Research continues to show that when we are exposed to nature in a non-threatening way, physiological and psychological changes occur in our bodies.
Why Is Nature Beneficial?
A few theories try to explain why it is nature plays a significant role in restoring, healing, connecting, and soothing the human body.
ROOTED IN OUR ANCESTORS
The biophilia hypothesis proposes that our ancestors depended on nature to survive and for overall wellbeing. Seeking food, water, and shelter- they had to be connected in order to thrive. It wasn’t until recently that we started living in urban environments.
DOESN’T REQUIRE DIRECT FOCUS
The attention restoration theory rests on the idea that in our daily grind our minds are constantly needing to focus on certain tasks at hand. You essentially drain your brain’s energy tank. You lose the ability to keep focus and willpower.
(Side note: this goes hand in hand with why cravings crop up at the end of the day and are harder to fend off).
Nature, however, provides scenic views that are easy for the brain to soak in without much thought. In nature, you may find it’s easier to relax and take in the sights. Your brain is able to restore its energy. Not much thought goes into observing ducks on a pond or watching trees rustle in the wind.
NATURALLY STRESS REDUCING
The stress reduction theory proposes that spending time in natural environments elicits a psychophysiological response. This theory rests on the premise that, from an evolutionary perspective, while immersed in nature your body automatically feels relaxed because you’re surrounded by resources needed to survive. Cortisol levels drop, pulse rate decreases, and immune functioning improves.
Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience.
Mother Nature’s Benefits
Additional studies have looked at how nature plays a role in reducing stress, improving focus, and connecting us with one another. The findings are encouraging. Below are some of the benefits nature provides.
Measurable physiological responses occur, such as decreased pulse rate, lower cortisol levels, slower breathing, etc. You experience a feeling of relaxation.
One study found that students who had a green space view versus those with a view of a concrete rooftop performed better on a boring computer test.
Any exposure to nature, whether through images, sounds, or being physically surrounded by natural environments leads to positive emotions. Of course, the most benefit gained comes from immersing yourself in the outside natural world.
Nature is easy for your brain to observe and take in. You simply notice. Unlike tedious tasks that require intense focus. Thus, nature replenishes your brain’s energy stores.
Makes Us Kinder
In two separate studies involving students, those exposed to nature (either by watching a video of nature scenes or taking a field trip to a natural environment), showed more prosocial behavior than those who were not exposed to nature.
Increases our connection with others and feelings of belonging
Nature has a way of making people feel more connected to their neighbors and friends. Encouraging research shows that even those with low social connectedness (think isolation) have higher levels of happiness and overall well-being when nature is nearby.
Gives us a sense of meaning and purpose in life
Connecting with nature brings about more than just feeling good. A meta-analysis showed people who connect with nature have greater overall well-being and feeling of purpose.
So how can you gain these benefits? Let’s explore some ways.
Clear Your Mind, Improve Attention, Problem Solve
In today’s technologically advanced world, working from home or in an office results in hours of screen time. More than you’d like to admit. However, you can change up your current environment and actively make spending time in nature a part of your daily routine.
8 Ways YOU CAN START Benefitting From Nature
According to Mayer and colleagues, exposure to nature whether in person or via video results in the ability to increase your attention span, clear your head, and solve problems easier.
- Work outside. Take your laptop or pen and paper and work outside as much as you can. Especially when you’re needing some clarity on a work assignment.
- Start a walking meeting outdoors. You may have heard of walking meetings before and I’m here to tell you they work. Their triple power effect is worth trying. Not only do you gain the benefit of movement and social interaction but also improvements in cognition.
Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.
- Surround yourself with plants and images of nature, whether you work from home or in an office. Small potted plants and pictures on your desk will work. If you can work near a window that overlooks some green or blue space, do so. You can still gain some benefits of nature through visual imagery.
- Do everyday activities outdoors. Sorting through mail? Reading the news? Drinking a cup of coffee? Or reading a book? Go outside, whether on your porch or patio or sit by a window with a scenic view.
- Listen to nature sounds. If you’re by a window, take time throughout the day to listen to the birds chirping, the leaves rustling, or the rain. Or listen to nature sounds on Pandora. The sound of nature alone has been shown to improve cognition.
- Take your lunch break outdoors. Next time you’re on your lunch break, take your food outside. If you are within walking distance of a park, even better. A little fresh air and reconnection with nature will leave you feeling refreshed and ready to take on the afternoon.
- Nature walk. Take a walk out in nature. Think of several places nearby that you could go. Maybe a hiking trail, a park, the mountains, the ocean, or even your backyard (if you live in the country). Take time to go for a scenic walk. Use that time to really connect with the sights, sounds, and smells.
- Take pictures. Got a smartphone? Take your own scenic pictures and consider recording certain sounds like water rushing down a river or off a waterfall. Maybe you live by the ocean or a lake– record the sounds of the waves. Pull them up on your phone or computer for later enjoyment and a boost of brainpower.
You can reduce stress and improve your mood by taking a walk in a green or blue space like a park, trail, by the river, the ocean, or on the mountain. Even if you only have a 15 minute break at work, take advantage and go for a stroll outside.
Get 18 Minutes Daily For The Most Benefit
Whether you live next to a green or blue space or are within driving or walking distance of one, take advantage when you can. Research suggests that spending 120 minutes in nature results in better health and well-being. That’s 2 hours per week or about 18 minutes per day.
So start drinking your morning coffee outside or by a scenic window, eat your lunch outdoors, walk the trail behind your house after work even if for 10 minutes. Make a point to visit a state park or go hiking next to a body of water. Find ways throughout your day and week to reconnect with the natural environment.
Your mind, body, and spirit will thank you.
Now, I’d love to hear from you. What’s your one favorite place outdoors to getaway?