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.

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
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
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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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