Stronger by Nature – 30 Minutes of Nature Will Strengthen Mental Health – Research

The Weekly Dose of Nature That Will Strengthen Mental Health

It is always a welcome thing when science confirms that the beautiful things will strengthen us, nurture us and protect us. Well here’s one for you – recent research has found that being in nature for thirty minutes a week will strengthen and protect mental health, and increase feelings of belonging.

Mental health feeds into everything we do. It powers our happiness, relationships, career, confidence – everything. It is more than an absence of mental illness, and is about realising our own capacity to thrive and cope with the day to day stresses of life. It also involves the ability to be productive and contribute something to the community that wouldn’t be there without us.  

It’s not always easy to achieve strong mental health – our genetics and our environment don’t always play nicely – but there are things we can do to nurture it along. Spending time in nature is one of these ways, and research is finding that the effects of this are powerful.

Why Our Stone-Age Brains Need a Dose of Nature.

The importance of getting a weekly dose of nature for the good of our mental health probably isn’t surprising. Despite our modern, urban lives, we still have stone-age brains that have been beautifully built to thrive in stone-age conditions. When our stone-age brains are forced into a modern lifestyle, they can still flourish, provided that we fuel them with the things that they have been craving for thousands of years.

To be at their best, our brains need the things that would have been abundant and within easy, everyday reach of our stone-age ancestors. This includes plenty of sleep, physical activity, sunlight, social connectedness, a diet rich in omega-3 and nature – lots of time in nature without the complexities of urban life stretching mental resources.

It’s no secret that nature is something kind of wonderful for our minds, bodies and spirits, but what is becoming clear, is that there is a minimum dose of nature that we need to keep our mental health at its best. A study led by the University of Queensland (UQ) and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED), has found that 30 minutes of nature each week will make a difference.

‘We’ve known for a long time that visiting parks is good for our health but we … have specific evidence that we need regular visits of at least half an hour to ensure we get these benefits.’ – Associate Professor Richard Fuller, UQ CEED researcher.  

Okay then – show me the proof.

The research, published in the journal Scientific Reports, looked at the relationship between individual experiences of nature and various measures, including measures of mental health, blood pressure, and social cohesion. 

The study involved 1538 people aged 18-70. It found that people who spend 30 minutes or more each week were less likely to struggle with stress, anxiety, depression and heart disease. The people who visited green spaces more often also had greater social cohesion.

‘If everyone visited their local parks for half an hour each week there would be seven per cent cent fewer cases of depression and nine percent fewer cases of high blood pressure.’ Dr Danielle Shanahan, researcher, UQ CEED.

Given that mental health is fundamental to the way we think, feel and relate, both individually and collectively, any reduction in mental illness will have important implications for all of us.

Previous research: ‘Yep. Told you.’

The research builds on previous work that has found similar health effects of spending time outdoors.

Previous research has shown that 30 minutes of outdoor gardening reduces cortisol (the stress hormone) and restores a positive mood after a stressful task. Interestingly, when the same stressful task was followed by 30 minutes of indoor reading, mood continued to deteriorate during the time spent reading.

Hiking outdoors has been found to reduce negative thinking and rumination. Rumination is the obsessive, repetitive cycle of negative thinking that leads to a number of mental health issues including depression, anxiety, binge eating and post-traumatic stress disorder. People who walked for 90 minutes through a grassland reported lower levels of rumination and also showed reduced activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that is associated with mental illness. Those who spent that 90 minutes walking through an urban environment did not show these health benefits.

So the outdoors and mental health are pretty fabulous together – but how does it work?

 The researchers suggest a number of ways that green spaces might influence mental health.            

  • When compared to urban spaces, a green space might provide a view that has is less taxing on mental resources.
  •  A green space is less likely to initiate a stress response, because of the limited need for concentration or focus.
  • Spending time in nature is likely to initiate the body’s own automatic psychological and physiological responses that reduce stress. This will increase positive mood and help the body and mind to recover from mental fatigue.
  • Being outdoors may increase opportunities for contact with the community, which will lead to increased feelings of social cohesion and the mental well-being that flows from that.

And finally …

In a world where so many of us live in cities, with our focus and attention being drawn away from nature and towards the more synthetic, mechanical parts of the world, nature offers a way to break the city sickness that can flow from our urban lives.

Thirty minutes of nature each week is enough to work a little bit of magic for all of us by lowering our mental fatigue, improving our mental well-being, reducing symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression, increasing our connectedness with each other, and soothing our tired minds, bodies and spirits. 

6 Comments

Rosanne

Nature is definitely the key that unlocks the door to mental and physical health!

Reply
Andrea

I didn’t know about nature healing for mental stress,but I love walking in the small forest for hour….Whenever I went to my granny’s house in village ,most of the time I spent in gart or forst…….listen nature calling ,breezing,chirping……..its cherish me.

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Normanmike

I feed the garden birds and others. I have three feeding stations and the pleasure I get out of watching the dozen or so different breeds makes me a much calmer. I have a small fish pond in the back garden and watching the fish swimming and feeding has the same effect

Reply
Sharon Hutchinson

That part about being outside in nature vs. urban environments makes a ton of sense. The only nature where we now live near is a tiny stretch of river where I seek refuge (and I’m usually the only one there). In fact, this whole subject in general is among the most important facts that people need to learn.

I believe this is why my mental as well as physical conditions deteriorated rapidly when we moved here a few years ago. Always a nature lover, I had lived mostly in rural areas until now. The people here seem to despise and be afraid of nature. Even my psych told me I must move as he sees my mental conditions keep going down a slippery slope.

Thank you so much for the information covering how very important the connection between humans and nature should be. I am going to share it with some of these “neighbors” who just don’t get it.

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Delia

This is so true! I’d venture to say only 30 min a week is little, and actually more like 30 min per day would be more helpful.

And yes, spending this time mindfully in nature by being present 100% is key. I see too many people (I’ve been guilty too :)) checking their gadgets all the time instead of immersing themselves to really reap the benefits of being outdoors.

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Today was an ending and a beginning. My darling girl finished year 12. The final year at school is tough enough, but this year was seismic. Our teens have moved through this year with the most outstanding courage and grace and strength, and now it is time for them to rest and play. My gosh they deserve it. 

It is true that this is a time of celebration, but it can also be an intense time of self-reflection for our teens. (I can remember the same feelings when my gorgeous boy finished so many years ago!) My daughter has described it as, ‘I feel as though I’ve outgrown myself but my new self isn’t ready yet.’ This just makes so much sense. 

There is a beautifully fertile void that is waiting for whatever comes next for each of them, but that void is still a void. At different times it might feel exciting, overwhelming, or brutal in its emptiness.

We also have to remember that this is a time of letting go, and there might be grief that comes with that. Before they can grab on to their next big adventure, they have to let go of the guard rails. This means gently adjusting their hold on the world they have known for the last 12+ years, with its places and routines and people that have felt like home on so many days. There will be redirects and shiftings, and through it all the things that need to stay will stay, and the things that need to adjust will adjust. 

To my darling girl, your loved incredible friends, and the teens who make our world what it is - you are the beautiful  thinkers, the big feelers, the creators, the change makers, and the ones who will craft and grow a better world. However you might feel now, the lights are waiting to shine for you and because of you. The world beyond school is opening its arms to you. That opening might happen quickly, or gently, or smoothly or chaotically, but it will happen. This world needs every one of you - your voices, your spirits, your fire, your softness, your strength and your power. You are world-ready, and we are so glad you are here xxx
When our kids or teens are in high emotion, their words might sound anxious, angry, inconsolable, jealous, defiant. As messy as the words might be, they have a good reason for being there. Big feelings surge as a way to influence the environment to meet a need. Of course, sometimes the fallout from this can be nuclear.
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Wherever there is a big emotion, there will always be an important need behind it - safety, comfort, attention, food, rest, connection. The need will always be valid, even if the way they’re going about meeting it is a little rough. As with so many difficult parenting moments, there will be gold in the middle of the mess if we know where to look. 
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There will be times for shaping the behaviour into a healthier response, but in the middle of a big feeling is not one of those times. Big feelings are NOT a sign of dysfunction, bad kids or bad parenting. They are a part of being human, and they bring rich opportunities for wisdom, learning and growth. .
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Parenting isn’t about stopping the emotional storms, but about moving through the storm and reaching the other side in a way that preserves the opportunity for our kids and teens to learn and grow from the experience - and they will always learn best from experience. 
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To calm a big feeling, name what you see, ‘I can see you’re disappointed. I know how much you wanted that’, or, ‘I can see this feels big for you,’ or, ‘You’re angry at me about .. aren’t you. I understand that. I would be mad too if I had to […],’ or ‘It sounds like today has been a really hard day.’ 
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When we connect with the emotion, we help soothe the nervous system. The emotion has done its job, found support, and can start to ease. 
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When they ‘let go’ they’re letting us in on their deepest and most honest emotional selves. We don’t need to change that. What we need to do is meet them where they and gently guide them from there. When they feel seen and understood, their trust in us and their connection to us will deepen, opening the way for our influence.
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When they are at that line, deciding whether to retreat to safety or move forward into brave, there will be a part of them that will know they have what it takes to be brave. It might be pale, or quiet, or a little tumbled by the noise from anxiety, but it will be there. And it will be magical. Our job as their flight crew is to clear the way for this magical part of them to rise. ‘I can see this feels scary for you - and I know you can do this.’ 
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When our kids or teens are struggling, it can be hard to know what they need. It can also be hard for them to say. It can be this way for all of us - we don't always know what we need from the people around us. It might be space, or distraction, or silence, or maybe acknowledging and being there is enough. Sometimes we might need to know that the people we love aren't taking our need for space, or our confusion or anger or sadness personally, and that they are still there within reach.
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What can be easier is thinking about what other people might need. Asking this when they are calm can invite a different perspective and can give you some insight into what they need to hear when they are going through similar. Don't worry if you just get a shrug, or a disheartened, 'I don't know'. They don't need to know, and neither do we. The question in itself might be enough to open a new way through any sense of 'stuckness' or helplessness they might be feeling.
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Give them space to talk but you don’t need to fix anything. You’ll want to, but the answers are in them, not us. Sometimes the answer will be to feel it out, or push for change, or feel the futility of it all so the feeling can let go, knowing it’s done it’s job - it’s recruited support, or raised awareness that something isn’t right.

Sometimes the feelings might be seismic but the words might be gone for a while. That’s okay too. Do they want to start with whatever words are there? Or talk about something else? Or go for a walk with you? Watch a movie with you? Or do a spontaneous, unnecessary drive thru with you just because you can - no words, no need to explain - just you and them and car music for the next 20 minutes. 

The more you can validate what they’re feeling (maybe, ‘Today was big for you wasn’t it’) and give them space to feel, the more they can feel the feeling, understand the need that’s fuelling it, and experiment with ways to deal with it. Sometimes, ‘dealing with it’ might mean acknowledging that there is something that feels big or important and a little out of reach right now, and feeling the fullness and futility of that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days are rubbish, and that sometimes those days last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. But the learning comes from experience.

I wish our kids never felt pain, but we don’t get to decide that. We don’t get to decide how our children grow, but we do get to decide how much space and support we give them for this growth. We can love them through it but we can’t love them out of it. I wish we could but we can’t.

So instead of feeling the need to silence their pain, make space for it. In the end we have no choice. Sometimes all the love in the world won’t be enough to put the wrong things right, but it can help them feel held while they move through the pain enough to find their out breath, and the strength that comes with that.♥️

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