Life moves fast. Notifications, traffic, work-related stress, civil-unrest, racial and political tension, not to mention adjusting to a new normal after going through a global pandemic — it all adds up and takes a mental, emotional and physical toll. As of 2018, data shows that 970 million people worldwide have a mental health or substance abuse disorder, anxiety being the most common, affecting 284 million people.
Since the pandemic, numbers have only increased: in the US, the percentage of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression jumped from 11% in January – June 2019 to 42% in December 2020.
While we’ve seen an increase in mental health issues, it’s been paired with a huge push for mindfulness and mental health to become the new normal. If you’re looking for ways to grow your mental health practice, you might not have to go very far.
An ever-growing amount of research has been revealing what humans have known intuitively for years: nature has an incredibly healing effect on our mental health.
Let’s dive into some of the mental health benefits of the outdoors.
Mental Health Benefits of Nature
Reduced negative emotions: symptoms of anxiety, depression and psychosomatic illnesses like irritability, insomnia, tension headaches and indigestion have all been found to lessen when time is spent in nature, according to a study.
Stress reduction: nature is your best friend when it comes to stress management. Research shows that within only minutes of you immersing yourself in all things nature stress is relieved, muscle tension and blood pressure are both lowered, and ability to focus is increased — being near nature has even been shown to reduce symptoms of ADHD.
Mood booster: nature works wonders on your hormone levels. Time in green spaces and even nature sounds or silence in the outdoors significantly lowers your cortisol levels — a stress hormone in your body — while boosting endorphin levels and dopamine production, which promote all the good feels.
Improved cognitive function: need to problem solve? Stuck on an idea? Heading into the great outdoors is shown to improve creative thinking.
Support the grieving process: navigating loss and trauma is a process, one that nature can support. Being outdoors has been shown to increase copying ability, including improving self-awareness, self-concept and positively impacting mood.
How To Integrate Nature Into Your Mental Health Practice
Take Up Forest Bathing
Recognizing the benefits of time spent in nature, Tomohide Akiyama, the then-director of the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries created a term for the concept in 1982: “shinrin-yoku”. It means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” To this day the ministry encourages people to visit forests to relieve stress and improve health.
Many scientific studies have shown how forest bathing can benefit humans at a cellular level and have positive effects on our moods, sleep, stress levels, and blood glucose regulation. Plus, forest bathing can actually lead to higher immune system function. How? Trees create an organic protective compound called phytoncides (which are just essential oils).
These phytoncides have antibacterial and antifungal qualities which help plants fight disease. When people breathe in these chemicals, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells or NK. These cells kill tumor- and virus-infected cells in our bodies.
There are thousands of these compounds emitted from the forests, and when humans breathe in these essential oils, our entire nervous systems reap the benefits.
Forest bathing is a simple practice of “connecting with the forest”, ideally for a prolonged period. It’s meant to engage all of the senses, and invites us to slow down to take in the sounds, sights, and tranquility found in nature. Unlike a hike or brisk walk, forest bathing invites us to take a meditative approach.
Walk slowly and mindfully through your local park or trail, or take a seat and observe a tree line, breathing deeply.
Give Forest Therapy A Try
Forest Therapy is a presence and mindfulness practice inspired by forest bathing that has the intention to bring grounding and healing through interaction with nature. You can practice it while on a nature walk, sitting outside or even inside with a few plants around.
The experience is a lightly active meditation, your guide leading you through invitations to mindfulness through touching your natural surroundings, or observing them if you prefer.
Sound interesting? You can learn more about forest therapy and find a guide for yourself.
Get Your Sweat On Outdoors
Reap the mental health effects of exercise and nature: elevated mood, decreased cortisol, stress levels and blood pressure. Plus, studies show that taking your work out into nature helps reduce your perceived effort and increases energy levels, so you can level up your exercise game.
Bring The Outside In
Can’t make it into the woods? No sweat. Research has shown that bringing elements of nature into your home still has positive effects. Plants are known to reduce stress and negative feelings by 58 percent, improve attention and increase mental restoration. Having a view of a natural environment or even viewing a picture of nature can make a difference. Groundbreaking research led by Roger Ulrich revealed that hospital patients with views of the outdoors needed less pain medication than those who did not.
So feel free to fuel your house plant obsession, pick up a bouquet of (sustainable) flowers, start a windowsill garden, diffuse some natural essential oils, or even have nature-inspired images around your house.
Mental Health Resources
While we’re all for using the outdoors to support mental health, we know that nature isn’t a replacement for the care of a mental health professional, or a cure-all. We hope that by immersing ourselves in nature, we can take a small step that can add up to big changes in our mental health.
Need more than nature for a pick me up? You’re not alone. Here are some resources to support your mental health journey.
- Better Help
- ReGain (for couples)
- Pride Counselling (LGBTQ+ specific)
- Ayana Therapy (BIPOC specific)
Mental Health Apps
- Headspace: meditation app.
- Sanvello: self-care, peer support, coaching and therapy.
- Moodfit: tool kit to help you reduce stress and improve mental health fitness.
- MoodMission: learn coping skills so you can tackle stress, low moods and anxiety.
- Shine: self-care toolkit for BIPOC individuals.
- Happify: overcome negative thoughts, stress and challenges, and have fun doing it.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: call 1-800-273-8255, en español 1-888-628-9454
Canada Suicide Prevention Service: call 1-833-456-4566
Hope for Wellness, for Indigenous peoples needing immediate crisis intervention and culturally-sensitive counselling: call 1-855-242-3310 or chat online