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

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.

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.

Reply
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
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.

Reply
Rosanne

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

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The move towards brave doesn’t have to be a leap. It can be a shuffle - lots of brave tiny steps, each one more brave than before. What’s important isn’t the size of the step but the direction.

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You know who I love? (Not counting every food delivery person who has delivered takeaway to my home. Or the person who puts the little slots in the sides of the soy sauce packets to make them easier to open. Not counting those people.) You know who? Adolescents. I just love them. 
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Today I spoke with two big groups of secondary school students about managing anxiety. In each talk, as there are in all of my talks with teens, there were questions. Big, open-hearted, thoughtful questions that go right to the heart of it all. 
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Some of the questions they asked were:
- What can I do to help my friend who is feeling big anxiety?
- What can I do to help an adult who has anxiety?
- How can I start the conversation about anxiety with my parents?

Our teens have big, beautiful, open hearts. They won’t always show us that, but they do. They want to be there for their friends and for the adults in their lives. They want to be able to come to us and talk about the things that matter, but sometimes they don’t know how to start. They want to step up and be there for their important people, including their parents, but sometimes they don’t know how. They want to be connected to us, but they don’t want to be controlled, or trapped in conversations that won’t end once they begin. 

Our teens need to know that the way to us is open. The more they can feel their important adults holding on to them - not controlling them - the better. Let them know you won’t cramp them, or intrude, or ask too many questions they don’t want you to ask. Let them know that when they want the conversation to stop, it will stop. But above all else, let them know you’re there. Tell them they don’t need to have all the words. They don’t need to have any words at all. Tell them that if they let you know they want to chat, you can handle anything that comes from there - even if it’s silence, or messy words, or big feelings - you can handle all of it. Our teens are extraordinary and they need us during adolescence more than ever, but this will have to be more on their terms for a while.  They love you and they need you. They won’t always show it, but I promise you, they do.♥️
Sometimes silence means 'I don't have anything to say.' Sometimes it means, 'I have plenty to say but I don't want to share it right here and right now.' We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety are thoughtful, observant and insightful, and their wisdom will always have the potential to add something important to the world for all of us.

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Rather than talking to them about what they can’t do (and they’ll probably want to talk about this a lot - that’s what anxiety does), ask them what they can do. It doesn’t matter how small the step is, as long as it’s forward.
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The idea is to gradually and gently expose them to the things that feel frightening. This is the only way to re-teach the amygdala that it’s safe. Let them know you understand it feels scary - they need to know you feel what they feel and that you get it. This will make your belief in them and your refusal to support avoidance more meaningful. Then move them towards brave.
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This can be tough. To move our children towards the things that are causing them distress pushes fiercely against our instincts as a parent - but - supporting avoidance, overprotecting, over-reassuring, the things we do that unintentionally accommodate anxiety over brave behaviour will only feed anxiety and make it more resistant to change. (And as a parent I’ve done all of these things at some time - we’re parents, not perfect, and parental love has a way of drawing us all in to unhelpful behaviours in the name of protecting our kiddos). .
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The point is, moving our children towards brave behaviour can feel awful, but it’s so important. When they focus on the fear and what they can’t do, try, ‘Okay, I know this feels scary. I really do. I also know you can do this. I understand this step feels too big, so what little step can you take towards it? What can you do that is braver than last time?’

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We can’t decide the lessons our children learn and we can’t decide when they learn them, but we can create the space that invites the discovery. We can do this by making it safe for them to speak, and to wander around their own experiences so the lessons and wisdom can emerge.
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