Does Spending Time Outside in Nature Affect Mental Health?
Our world is rapidly urbanizing, and the general population appears to be increasingly disconnected from natural environments. At least half of the US population resides in an urban environment, and the idea of “living off the grid” for the great majority of people seems to be some sort of utopian reality that would not be practical to sustain in our modern world. Residents of big cities are so caught up in their city living that they are often not finding the time to escape into nature.
“…at least half of the US population resides in an urban environment…”
While living in an urban environment can certainly increase efficiency and productivity, the associated lifestyle certainly has some downsides. Specifically, it can increase the risk of negative effects on our mental health. There are a multitude of factors in modern day that could be affecting the uptick in mental disorders. Social isolation, lack of regular physical exercise and the consumption of the standard American diet (SAD have all been on the rise, and have been associated with negative effects on overall mental health. While urbanization is not the only factor contributing to this rise in mental disorders, there is evidence that it plays an important role.
There is a growing amount of research taking place to determine the effect that both nature and urban environments have on mental health. Previous studies have shown that city dwellers have a 40 percent higher risk of developing a mood disorder and are 20 percent more likely to develop an anxiety disorder than those who live in natural environments. Furthermore, children who are born and raised in cities are twice as likely to develop schizophrenia than those who are raised in rural areas. It is important to understand the effect that living in an urban environment can have on our mental well-being, so that we can foster new ways to reconnect with nature.
“Previous studies have shown that urban residents have a 40 percent higher risk of developing a mood disorder and are 20 percent more likely to develop an anxiety disorder than those who live in natural environments.”
Researchers at Stanford University conducted a study to measure the outcomes that walking in nature has on the brain in comparison to walking in an urban setting. They had two different groups of participants walk in either a high traffic urban environment or in an area of nature for a total of ninety minutes. The individuals walking in nature were in a grassland area surrounded by oak trees and various other shrubs. The second group walked along a busy four lane street in a city. The researchers collected a variety of measurements by questionnaire, in addition to physiological measurements like heart rate, respiration rate, and a brain scan of the neural activity occurring in the subgenual prefrontal cortex to determine the effects that the different environments have on the participants.
The subgenual prefrontal cortex is an area of the brain that has been shown to be activated during rumination and other maladaptive behaviors. Rumination is a prolonged focus on negative emotions and thoughts typically pertaining to the self. This repetitive loop of thoughts has been linked to the onset of depressive episodes and other mental disorders. When the researchers evaluated their data, they found little to no difference in the physiological changes measured such as heart rate and respiration rate. However, they did find a significant decrease in the levels of rumination both from the self-reported questionnaire and the brain scans showing the neural activity of the prefrontal cortex in the group of participants who did their walk in nature. Their findings add to the abundance of research that is being done to better understand the effect that our outside environment has on our mental wellbeing. We are finding that our environment might play a more significant role on our mental health then some may realize.
“…they did find a significant decrease in the levels of rumination both from the self-reported questionnaire and the brain scans showing the neural activity of the prefrontal cortex in the group of participants who did their walk in nature.”
The findings of this study do not mean that city life automatically leads to poorer mental health, but instead it provides us with great insight into how to optimize city living. If we live in a city that has easy access to nature, like Los Angeles, it is important to realize that walking in a natural setting has on our mental health. The next time that we decide to go for a leisurely walk, instead of taking a walk through a busy neighborhood, perhaps we can choose to spend our time walking along the beach or going for a hike. For residents of cities that do not have easy access to beaches and mountains, like Manhattan (even though it has the beautiful nature setting of Central Park), it is important for policymakers and city officials to understand the results of these studies to then incorporate areas of nature within the urban environments or to create an easier way to access nature.
Our world is inevitably going to continue to urbanize, and it is predicted that 70 percent of the population will be residing in big cities by 2050. While urbanization is not solely responsible for our mental health crisis, it is a factor that we can work to control and counteract. Gaining insight into the benefits that nature has on our neural activity is essential for our advanced society to understand how to decrease the mental health crisis. We may think that all the revolutionary advancements our society has made means that we do not need nature to thrive.
“While urbanization is not solely responsible for our mental health crisis, it is a factor that we can work to control.”
Many of us live in a parallel internet dominated world surrounded by technology, skyscrapers and eight lane highways, and we forget about the importance to to return to nature. However, spending time connecting with nature will help with emotional regulation and increase positive thinking. Immersing ourselves in nature when possible and getting out of the city from time to time, is a proven solution to reducing negative thought patterns and therefore optimizing our mental health.
Amanda Johnson is a recent graduate from the University of Southern California where she received her degree in Psychology. In addition to her university studies, she earned her Integrative Nutrition Health Coach certification from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition (IIN). Amanda works as a Health Coach and strives to educate her clients more about the gut-brain axis.