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The connection between nature and mental health

Nature & well-being

We have all experienced the benefits of spending time in nature, or simply just getting outside to get some fresh air, for however briefly. It simply makes us feel better. So, we started wondering about the connection between exposure to nature and mental well-being. What does the research say?

Our search led us to a paper published by the Association for the Advancement of Science. It consists of a cross-discipline review of empirical research on the effects of nature on mental health. The analysis finds consensus around 4 conclusions:

1.  Evidence supports an association between common types of nature experiences and increased psychological well-being. The benefits observed include: increased positive affect; happiness and subjective well-being; positive social interactions, cohesion, and engagement; improved manageability of life tasks; and decreases in mental distress

2.  Empirical observations show that common types of nature experiences are linked with a reduction in risk factors and the burden of mental illness. The link here appears to stem from better sleep and stress reduction. Sleep and stress are major risk factors for mental illness, particularly depression.

3.  The quantity and quality of beneficial nature experiences are decreasing for vast numbers of people. Urbanization, modern living habits, and environmental degradation are all contributing to reduced exposure to nature. There is risk of creating a negative feedback loop, where the lower familiarity with nature makes us crave it less. This is a potential ticking-bomb for mental health. 

So what can you do?

The best thing to do is to go outside on a regular basis. If you live in an urban environment, try to get away as much as possible. In a study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, participants who did 90 minutes walks in nature areas, as opposed to those who walked in urban areas, were found to have decreased activity in an area of the brain associated with depression and other types of mental illness.

The good news is that even if you can’t easily access nature, just exposing yourself to images of nature can have a positive effect on your mood and mental wellbeing. For example, a study conducted by the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that the participants who were presented video and sounds of nature, versus those who were shown urban imagery, recovered much more significantly after watching a stressful film. Participants who saw the nature videos had lower blood pressure and were shown by a psychological evaluation to be more relaxed. 

Nature art

Moving Art from Louie Schwartzberg on Vimeo.

Since the days are getting shorter and colder (not to mention the state of the ongoing pandemic), it is likely that getting to commune with nature will be more difficult over the next few months. So we were pleasantly surprised to find this inexpensive solution, called Moving Art, that displays the types of nature imagery shown to be just as effective for our mental health. Definitely something we plan to try next time we’re feeling stressed or down, or perhaps just when we’re in the mood to look at something beautiful.

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