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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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things 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. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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