Imagine talking to a psychiatrist about why you’ve been feeling so stressed out lately. You finish explaining what’s been going on in your life, and how you feel like you are living in a constant state of tension. After asking questions and listening intently, she hands you a prescription…for nature walks.
That’s right, psychiatrists often recommend lifestyle changes that may affect mental health, from diet and exercise, to making more time for yourself, to spending time outside. Many clinical studies have revealed just how powerful quality time with the great outdoors is.
Whether it’s a walk through the park, tending a garden, or simply sitting under a tree for a while, here are six ways green space can make you feel better.
1. Spending time in nature can measurably reduce stress
There have been plenty of studies about participants self-reported stress levels after spending time outside—who doesn’t feel like their head is a bit clearer after a walk? But do our bodies tell the same story? Actually, yes: Researchers measured cortisol (stress hormone) levels in saliva of study participants and found the percentage if green space in the participants’ living environment was a significant and independent predictor of lower cortisol levels. In other words, the more time visiting and/or viewing green space, the less stress the participants had.
2. Green spaces can also significantly lower symptoms of anxiety and depression
Mother Nature is more than just a mood booster: Green space can lower symptoms of conditions like anxiety and depression. Using the DASS-21 (one of the weekly assessments in the Sanvello app, too), researchers discovered neighborhood green space was consistently associated with lower scores, or lower stress, anxiety, and depression levels. It presents a strong case for planting a tree in your yard: A 25 percent increase in proportion of tree canopy in a neighborhood was associated with a decrease in the DASS score for depression of 1 point!
3. Green space during childhood can lower your risk of mental health conditions
It’s not just strolls outside as an adult that can boost your mood: Exposure to nature in childhood can have positive long-term effects. A recent study of Danish children found that those who grew up near green spaces had a 40 percent less chance of developing any of a spectrum of mental health disorders, and were also less likely to develop an alcohol or substance abuse disorder.
4. All green space is good, but trees might be best
When it comes to spending time outdoors, are all green spaces equal? Maybe not: A recent study in Australia found that spaces with some kind of tree canopy provide the greatest health benefits. As opposed to bare grass or low-lying vegetation, people living in neighborhoods with at least 30 percent tree cover were 31 percent less likely to develop psychological distress, after adjusting for other factors. If you have a choice to walk on a path lined by grass alone or by trees, the latter may be a better bet for your mental health.
5. Bringing the outside indoors can also bring well-being benefits
We’ve concluded that spending time outside is great for our mental well-being. But what does that mean for those who don’t have a lot of exposure to nature? The world is getting increasingly urban: 55 percent of the global population lives in cities—and that’s expected to grow to two-thirds by 2050. Plus, many of us spend the majority of our working hours in office buildings. The good news is that any exposure to nature can have mental health benefits. Researchers have found offices that capture outdoor elements, like views of the outdoors, potted plants, and natural light, reduce stress and increase positive emotions.
6. Just viewing images of nature can help
Perhaps the coolest thing about nature’s effect on our brains is that it doesn’t even have to be real to get some of the benefits. One study revealed that just looking at still images of nature is enough “natural” stimulus to lower stress levels. Participants looked at photos of urban spaces and everyday green spaces (tree-lined sidewalks and the like—nothing spectacularly majectic) before and after stress induction. Participants who looked at the nature images showed greater recovery from stress. So go ahead: Add that faux plant to your desk, hang up a photo of a favorite outdoor excursion, or open the Sanvello app (all of our themes are nature-based!) to get a little mood boost.
Give it a try
Which outdoor setting gives you the biggest mood boost? Spend about 30 minutes there today. Drink the fresh air, take in the views, and afterward, make note of how you feel. If you notice you feel a little bit lighter, consider making it part of your everyday routine. Your brain will thank you.
By Monika Roots
Chief Medical Officer, Sanvello
Dr. Roots practiced as a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist. She was also a Clinical Adjunct Assistant Professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison and was most recently the Vice President of Health Services and Behavioral Health for Teladoc Health. In 2016, Teladoc Health acquired her business, CogCubed, a behavioral health analytics company. Dr. Roots earned her MD from University of Sint Eustatius School of Medicine and completed psychiatry residency and fellowship in child/adolescent psychiatry at the University of Minnesota.