Nature and Mental Health

by Jan Cheek, MSW, LCSW

Spending time in nature has proven benefits for mental health and overall well-being. An increasing number of research studies in the last decade show that simply being outdoors, being with animals, or even just looking outside and observing trees, flowers, and animals from indoors can help reduce symptoms of stress, depression, moodiness, and anxiety.

Nature can be broadly defined including outdoor spaces like a backyard, an expansive field in the countryside, city parks, wilderness trails, forests, rivers and streams, ocean shores, gardens, trees, wildflowers, indoor plants, wild animals and pets, and more. Research done as a result of the social isolation for many people during the Covid pandemic has shown that even experiencing nature by watching documentaries about National Parks, animals, natural surroundings, sea life, etc. can also have positive health benefits.

Being mindful of what we experience in nature – seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching – can positively impact our mood in a matter of minutes! Research shows that the stress hormone, cortisol, is remarkably reduced by being in green wooded areas or gardens and by being close to water such as oceans, rivers, lakes, and creek beds. In addition to reducing cortisol and thus reducing stress, being in nature can also increase levels of endorphins and increase the production of dopamine which are both known to increase happiness.

Experiences in nature improve creativity, focus and attention, energy and feelings of livelihood while also promoting calmness and relaxation! A few minutes in nature can reduce blood pressure and contribute to relaxing tense muscles. Exposure to nature is known to improve self-reflection and thus improve self-awareness.

Simply taking a walk and noticing trees, animals, flowers, and noticing the array of colors, the sounds of birds chirping, and water flowing can improve our overall well-being. Even in a crowded city environment, there are proven health benefits from simply looking at the sky and noticing the clouds, the nighttime sky, flowers in window boxes and flower pots, visiting city parks, walking on nature paths, and noticing sunrises and sunsets.

To improve our mental health, we must be mindful when outdoors. Listen intentionally to the sounds of nature; look intentionally at the variety of colors and patterns of trees, plants, and flowers; intentionally smell the air after a quick spring shower; touch our pets and intentionally notice the feel of their fur.

Nature is all around us and it offers both the familiar experiences and unexpected experiences at any given time. Simply being present and noticing nature improves our mental and physical health. If we take a moment to pause and be mindful of our experience in nature, we can almost instantly contribute to our own well-being.