Getting out in nature can have incredible effects on your mental health, and we all know LGBTQ people love plants. Have you ever closed your eyes, felt the sun on your skin, and found presence in your body? If you have, you likely understand the soothing and grounding effects of being in nature.
“Stress reduction and attention restoration are related,” says Lisa, Ph.D., a psychologist who studies connectedness to nature in Canada. Nature has profound impacts on mental health and physical health. It makes sense. It can be easier to feel more mindful when we put down our screens and take a look around us. Plus, mindfulness helps reduce stress.
Impact of nature on mental health
Spending time in nature increases our attention spans and improves our overall health. The natural world can also positively affect stress hormones by reducing anxiety and stress. Green spaces, like forests, and blue spaces, like lakes or the ocean, have cognitive benefits that improve our overall health. Our immune systems, heart rates, and mental well-being improve after immersion in nature.
Mental health benefits of nature
Nature has a grounding effect that can be helpful when we feel overwhelmed, anxious, or stressed. FOLX mental health clinician, Melissa, LMHC, finds nature “provides a cascade of grounding opportunities.” “Grounding is a prime self-soothing skill,” she says. “When you are in a high alert state, physically or mentally, you can step outside and take a mindful yet firm stance on the grass or ground.” Then, she says, "Take distinct notice of the feeling of land between feet and spend mindful focus here.”
Another tool for dealing with anxious thoughts is the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. “Focus on five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste." You can do this activity wherever you find yourself, but might find particular release practicing it in nature or around plants.
Forest bathing in natural environments
Perhaps you have heard of blue spaces, green spaces, and ecotherapy. But have you heard of “forest bathing?” Forest bathing is the practice of fully immersing yourself in a natural forest setting.
Japanese researchers have found that time in forests improved peoples’ immune systems. NK, or Natural Killer cells, which fight tumors and infections, increased after people took a walk in the woods. The practice of taking in the forest atmosphere (forest bathing) is known as “Shinrin-yoku.” Researchers believe these positive effects are due to aerosols from the forest’s natural environment. These aerosols, also known as “phytoncides,” are released from trees and have antibacterial qualities. When people breathe these in, it can contribute to a spike in NK cell activity. Time spent in natural areas also decreased levels of cortisol in people’s salivary glands, leading to lowered stress hormone levels.
A minimum of two hours (120 minutes) per week is all you need for better health. Spending at least two hours in nature or in green spaces each week is just as good for your health and happiness as living in a safe area, having a good job, or getting enough physical activity. The study applied to older adults and people with chronic health issues, who were still more likely to report good health or greater well-being after spending time in nature.
Five easy ways to reap nature's benefits (even if you’re in a city):
How can we connect with nature for more mental health benefits? A natural setting may be harder to come by in cities or urban environments. Fortunately, you can still get a nature experience, even without traveling.
- Go on a walk, stroll, or roll (or ride your bike) if you can–especially in the sunlight hours. Sunlight is known to help boost serotonin levels and regulate circadian rhythms. Serotonin increases happiness and feelings of well-being. A balanced circadian rhythm promotes restful sleep.
- Spend time in a park or green space. Many cities are even structuring development around green spaces as the positive effects of nature become mainstream.
- Look up nature videos on your phone or from places you’ve been. Simply viewing a forest scene can help stress recovery, especially for folks residing in urban settings. Korean researchers showed psychological health benefits when people spend time in nature. Time in the forest, or other “green spaces,” improves cognitive and emotional health.
- Buy a plant or learn to garden. Having green around in your space is a great way to visualize nature. You can start gardening simply with a few herbs indoors. Working with your hands in the dirt is a great way to cultivate positive emotions. One study showed that psychiatric patients had improved mood and more positive interactions after gardening. It helped quell unpleasant thoughts and offered a positive distraction. Gardening can also foster a sense of community. Many urban areas have community gardens.
- Listen to nature sounds, especially if you want to boost your attention. Attention restoration theory (ART) suggests that being in nature can help our brain focus better by giving our attention system a break. Natural things are easier for our brain to process, which enhances cognitive function.
Health benefits of spending time in nature
Other health benefits of spending time in nature include lowered blood pressure and reduced cortisol from decreased stress levels. Improved mood and less anxiety are proven health outcomes from being in natural spaces.
There’s something about how nature soothes us that has a holistic effect. It’s why taking time to appreciate Mother Nature’s gifts is so important. With climate change causing fires, floods, and freezes worldwide, it’s vital to appreciate and protect natural settings. Planning cities so green spaces are accessible is a start. An “ecosystem service perspective” supports mental health and overall human health.
Taking time from our busy day (or doom scrolling social media) to appreciate nature is essential for our mental health. You deserve quiet time to be present and recuperate from life’s stressors and frequent attention deficits. Whether it's a “blue space,” “green space,” or a single tree, all kinds of nature can benefit mental health. So, the next time you need a break or feel overwhelmed, try stepping outside, feeling the air on your skin, and reconnecting with nature.
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