Mother Nature & Mental Health

Updated: Mar 22

This time of year, when the deciduous leaves have fallen and the grass has browned, with overcast skies and chilling temperatures, there's really nothing beckoning you out of doors. An untouched snowy field may be calling you to ski across it, but let’s face it, for most of us it's the season of hot chocolate, fuzzy socks, and heart-warming movies. However, with both the Coronavirus Pandemic and the season's freezin's hindering outdoor activity, for the sake of our mental health, it may be necessary to venture out regardless.


In a study conducted by Danielle F. Shanahan, the connection between nature and lower reports of depression is quite clear: "There is growing recognition of the crucial role of urban green spaces in addressing this public health challenge with over 40 years of research showing that experiences of nature are linked to a remarkable breadth of positive health outcomes. This includes improved physical health (e.g. reduced blood pressure and allergies, lower mortality from cardio-vascular disease, improved self-perceived general health), improved mental well-being (e.g. reduced stress and improved restoration), greater social well-being, and promotion of positive health behaviors (e.g. physical activity)" (1).


As far as we can gauge, the benefits from simply being in a green space are surprising and plenty, and even seemingly paradoxical at times (reducing allergies, for example). Still, when "green spaces" aren't literally green, can we still expect to receive the same positive outcomes? Simply put, the greater the variety of plants and trees, the stronger the impact on our mental health, ability to focus, and immune system. If you spend your time admiring a single pine tree, you will receive a boost to your immune system thanks to the phytoncides it releases, but the chances of increasing your serotonin levels or assisting your ability to focus won’t be as strong as if you were walking among a garden. Since gardens aren’t readily available in the wintertime (unless you’ve found yourself a Greenhouse), we take what we can get, which thankfully includes houseplants.


Houseplants (which are often diverse) can have the same benefits as a garden, so long as you’re taking time to admire your houseplants and focus on them. It may feel a bit odd, but even speaking to your plants can boost your mood and positively affect the plant growth! (Check out this article if you don’t believe us!) If you’re interested in learning more about the effects of diverse plant-life, you’ll want to check out this report “Psychological benefits of greenspace increase with biodiversity” by Richard A Fuller.


One of the biggest questions is whether these benefits are short term or long lasting. That depends upon several factors: a longer duration of individual nature experiences was significantly linked to a lower prevalence of depression and of high blood pressure, and increased physical activity. A higher frequency of green space visitation was an important predictor for increased social cohesion, and both duration and frequency showed a significant positive relationship with higher levels of physical activity (Shanahan 2). Essentially, Shanahan found that the more time an individual spends in nature, the more they want to be active. Nature can also physically calm the body. This response is compounded for those that feel more “connected” to nature and their environment.


Ultimately, Shanahan’s study noted that citizens in an urban environment can lower their blood pressure, positively affect their mood, and feel more socially connected to their community by spending just 30 minutes in a green space throughout the course of a week (3). 30 minutes in exchange for feeling better in both body and mind? Count me in.



Resources:

Shanahan, D., Bush, R., Gaston, K. et al. Health Benefits from Nature Experiences Depend on Dose. Sci Rep6, 28551 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep28551


Fuller, R. A., Irvine, K. N., Devine-Wright, P., Warren, P. H., & Gaston, K. J. (2007). Psychological benefits of greenspace increase with biodiversity. Biology Letters,3(4), 390-394. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2007.0149



About the Author

Austin Newland (she/they) is a Land & Water Steward located at the Center for Energy & Environmental Education. She is a University of Northern Iowa graduate who has recently moved back to the area to learn more about the field of environmentalism. As part of their role with Green Iowa AmeriCorps, they enjoy writing about what their learning and editing for the Program's blog. In her free time, you can find her walking local trails with her dog, Mesa, and buying copious amounts of coffee at any (all) of the local coffeehouses.



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