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Nature's Influence on Our Health

Written By: Emma Rose Miller

Coping With Nature

Can nature relieve stress?

This is a question I have repeatedly asked myself. I often spend time in natural environments when I need a mental break or am feeling overwhelmed, and it is something that has continually made me feel refreshed and calm. This question seems more essential now than ever, as one of the only things we can do right now is go for a walk outside (if you can brave the cold). These are very strange times we are living in, and not being able to go out and do all the things we used to can feel very confusing, upsetting, and even stressful. I personally have had trouble staying positive and feeling motivated, and I’m sure social distancing is having its different effects on each of our own personal mental health’s. Fortunately, natural environments and green spaces can have powerfully positive effects on our mental health.

Individuals had significantly lower activity in their subgenual prefrontal cortex (sgPFC) after going on a 90 minute walk in nature. The sgPFC is a part of the brain that is active during feelings of withdrawal, sadness, and negative thinking. Those individuals also reported lower levels of rumination, a process of thinking that involves spending a considerable amount of attention on negative self-related emotions. However, only the individuals who went on their walk in a natural green environment experienced these positive mental health effects. Those who went on a 90 minute walk in a downtown or urban area did not experience any differences in levels of rumination or measured sgPFC activity. The importance and power of a natural green environment is mentioned repeatedly in the literature.

A 90 minute nature walk may be difficult to schedule into daily life, but luckily, research has found that even a simple five minutes of nature contact can have a positive impact on our mood and mental health. When individuals were assigned to either five or 15 minutes of nature contact, they reported equal amounts of a significant increase in mood, regardless of their contact duration. They reported feeling gratitude, comfort, and an increased sense of belonging. These findings were consistent across all four seasons, so I would encourage everyone who can to plan a time where they can take five minutes to bundle up and breathe in some fresh air. Those who intentionally sought out nature as a restorative environment had higher reports of it being an effective coping strategy for stress. Planned and purposeful visits to nature were also associated with increased energy and decreased stress. The more times an individual uses nature as a coping strategy, the more effective it becomes. Individuals who visited green spaces more frequently had significantly lower levels of self reported stress and for women, decreased depressive symptoms.

Nature can be a useful coping strategy as it has the ability to decrease stress and improve mood. Hopefully you can all find some time in your day to go outside and support your mental health during these difficult times!

- Emma Rose

References

  1. Bratman, G. N., Hamilton, J. P., Hahn, K. S., Daily, G. C., & Gross, J. J. (2015). Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(28), 8567–8572. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1510459112

  2. Neill, C., Gerard, J., & Arbuthnott, K. D. (2018). Nature contact and mood benefits: contact duration and mood type. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 14(6), 756–767. doi: 10.1080/17439760.2018.1557242

  3. Raleigh M. Childhood nature contact and its effect on adult coping skills.Antioch University; 2009.

  4. Berg, M. V. D., Poppel, M. V., Kamp, I. V., Andrusaityte, S., Balseviciene, B., Cirach, M., … Maas, J. (2016). Visiting green space is associated with mental health and vitality: A cross-sectional study in four european cities. Health & Place, 38, 8–15. doi: 10.1016/j.healthplace.2016.01.003



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