Guest Author: Susan Bakker, Psychotherapist, LMSW
Growing up, I was fortunate to live in an area that allowed many wonderful hours playing in the beauty and quiet of a woodland. These days, whether I’m on a trail in the woods or reveling in the dramatic views of the Great Lakes, I have always found nature feeds my soul and gives me a greater sense of well-being. Poets and writers have for generations attested to the rejuvenating and healing impact nature can provide. But is there evidence, beyond the intuitive, that time spent in natural surroundings supports mental health and improves mental illness?
Scientists over the past few years are beginning to produce evidence that time in nature helps us relax, reduces stress and anxiety, improves mood, positively affects our interactions with others, improves attention and memory, and increases creativity. Both psychological measures and physiological ones which measure brain activity such as fMRI or EEG, have revealed positive effects.
A Walk in Nature Boosts Your Mood & Reduces Stress
Studies in Japan, Finland and the US found an increase in relaxation responses and reduction in stress from being out in nature and even from just looking at natural scenes. Gregory Bratman of Stanford University looked specifically at the effect walking in nature vs an urban setting had on rumination (the tendency to brood on negative aspects of self, others or life), which is a regular aspect of depression. He found that brain activity in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that shuts down to varying degrees in depression and anxiety, was increased among the nature walkers, suggesting an improvement in mood. Researchers at University of Berkeley found that mood was improved and people were more willing to help others after looking at natural scenes.
Increased Focus & Creativity
In our high-tech society in which we are bombarded daily with information and a pull on our attention by electronic devices, many experience mental fatigue and feelings of overwhelm. A researcher at the University of Utah, David Strayer, found that hikers solved 47% more puzzles which required creativity after a four hour backpacking trip than a control group of others waiting to hike.
Restorative and Healing
Nature helps us focus outside of ourselves and 'be in the moment', which reduces stress. Some find nature can be a meditative experience, which helps them quiet their mind's chatter. It helps distract our mind from negative thoughts. Nature's beauty and majesty can even provide a transcendent experience, connecting us with the spiritual, an awareness of something greater than ourselves. Such awareness can be restorative and healing.
Find a Park Near You
Some physicians are taking note of the growing body of research, and incorporating forays into nature as part of their treatment. Dr. Robert Zarr in Washington DC writes formal prescriptions for his patients to spend time in nature. He is the founder of Park RX America, a non-profit organization seeking to decrease the burden of chronic physical and mental illness and promote wellness by prescribing time in parks. The organization has a searchable database of parks for many states, including Michigan.
Michigan State Parks are also a great resource. You can view state parks, recreation areas and state forest campgrounds on a map or as a list here. You can also use the filters to search for the amenities and activities you are most interested in, such as hiking or equestrian trails, cabins, swimming beaches, mountain biking, accessible recreation and more. Additional information can also be found at Michigan.gov/StateParks.
Time out in nature provides many mental health benefits and is free medicine. Especially during the current pandemic when our connections with others are limited and so much of our normal lives has been lost or shifted, nature is a resource available to all. It is worth taking the time and recognizing the value of regularly going to green spaces for solace, restoration, and the healing power nature can provide.
Susan Bakker, Psychotherapist, LMSW