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Nature & Mental Health... What's the Connection?

Why is being in nature such a calming, soothing experience? According to many studies, nature has the ability to improve our mood, reduce feelings of stress & anger and improve our confidence and self-esteem. Coined as “eco-therapy”, being out in nature shown to have increasingly positive effects on the body and the brain. However, as we’ve moved towards a more technologically-dependent world, many are not taking advantage of the benefits being in nature offers. On college campuses, where mental health issues are most prevalent, students are not taking advantage of their traditionally very green grounds.

With the recent uptick in conditions such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), natural light is seen as one of the most important treatments when managing these conditions. Being surrounded by sunlight as well as naturally green, healthy trees creates a sense of calming that works to calm the mind as well. While it is not clear why a natural setting has such a positive mental effect, there have been numerous studies outlining the importance of getting back to nature.

In a study done in 2015, researchers compared the brain activity of healthy people after they walked 90 minutes in either an urban or natural setting. The research found that the people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural setting had lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for rumination (defined as repetitive thoughts that focus on negative emotions).

So, how much time do you have to spend in nature to feel these benefits? According to Dr. Jason Strauss, the director of geriatric psychiatry at Cambridge Health Alliance, 20-30 minutes a day will suffice. However, if you can’t get out in nature, even listening to nature sounds like the waves crashing or birds chirping is a good alternative. The point is to get away from the artificial sounds of an office building or city street and immerse yourself in a natural setting. How you do that is up to you.

Challenge: Find a time this week to immerse yourself in nature. Whether it is going for a walk, spending time in the woods, or taking in the landscape, spend at least 30 minutes outside and document how that makes you feel. Write your thoughts and feelings in a journal or on a piece of paper. When you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, revisit your thoughts. Then, outline a weekly plan that helps you to set aside time to spend in nature.

Challenge: If you can’t find time to get out in nature, try bringing nature inside. Find a plant, collect natural materials like flowers or leaves or take a picture of your favorite landscape and use them to decorate your workspace.

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