Last weekend I went camping with a couple of friends on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and I was reminded of how wonderful it can feel to immerse oneself in the beauty of nature, even if only for a few days.
Perhaps the relief, relaxation and overall good vibes I felt during camping in the “wilderness” are not an isolated incident. Many experts suggest that being more in touch with nature can actually noticeably improve your mental health.
Trudy Scott, a certified nutritionist and author of “The Antianxiety Food Solution: How the Foods You Eat Can Help You Calm Your Anxious Mind, Improve Your Mood and End Cravings,” said in an email that multiple studies suggest being in nature can boost mood.
“An interesting 2009 study from the Netherlands found a strong relationship between being outdoors in nature and lower rates of anxiety and depression,” Scott said.
“And a paper just published in the Journal of Affective Disorders looked at the effect of nature in depressed individuals, and found that something as simple as a walk in the park improved cognition and mood. A 2004 paper in the America Journal of Public Health found that children with ADHD benefitted from being outdoors in greenery.”
She has suggestions for women with children who want to get in touch with nature.
“Moms with younger children can get a rugged baby cart and go for a jog along trails,” Scott said.
“If there is a lake nearby, kayaking is an option, or going for a bike ride and putting the child in a bike seat or bike trailer. Even hiking with a backpack baby carrier is fun and kids love it too. As the children grow up, they can get their own bikes or kayaks and be encouraged to hike – make it a whole family affair. Going on a camping trip is fun for all, and the outdoors can be enjoyed – hiking, biking, water fun like kayaking, surfing or even windsurfing.”
Scott personally loves nature and the outdoors, and has felt a change in her life from embracing the wilderness.
“I have always had a love of the outdoors, and one of my favorite trips was hiking to the top of the highest mountain in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro,” Scott said.
“I love Yosemite and Zion National Park, and have hiked and done rock-climbing at both places. But just getting on my mountain bike and doing a trail ride near my home or going for a windsurf on the nearby lake totally rejuvenates me, gives me more mental clarity and lifts my mood.”
Mikaya Heart, an author of books like “The Ultimate Guide to Orgasm for Women: How to Become Orgasmic for a Lifetime,” and a life coach, said in an email that there is a major connection between mental health and nature.
“Sometimes in social settings we are expected to fit into boxes that just really don't work, and that can make us feel very crazy,” Heart said. “Nature doesn't require those kinds of boxes, it has no rules about what we do and say.”
There are mainly only positives to being in touch with nature, depending on the level of devotion a person has to nature, she said.
“It allows you to be fully yourself, separate from external influences that don't benefit you,” Heart said.
“I suppose the disadvantage might be that it becomes more difficult to ‘fit in’ socially - but that seems secondary compared to the inner peace that comes from spending time in nature.”
For people who want to become closer to nature, she suggests trying different outdoor activities.
“There are many sports that are about playing with nature, such as kite flying and windsurfing,” Heart said.
“Hiking can be great fun - and if you are a runner, you can always run in parks. Walking meditation can bring you to a place of stillness just as effectively as sitting meditation - or you can choose to sit in natural surroundings rather than indoors.”
She has a personal story about the power of nature, and how it has changed her life for the better.
“As a child I spent a great deal of time alone in nature, and again later in life, when I was making big changes, I went to remote rural places where I didn't see people for weeks at a time,” Heart said.
“I have found this time with nature deeply refreshing and renewing for me. It takes me back to the truth of who I really am; like the birds and the animals and the trees, I am not trying to be anything other than myself, I am not trying to measure up to anyone else's standards.”
She makes a point of taking time out of her day to enjoy nature.
“I find it quite essential to spend regular periods of time (an hour or so a day) in natural surroundings, where everything that is false falls away and I know what really matters,” Heart said.
“I find that answers to difficult questions naturally present themselves in that kind of situation. It is profoundly healing, always bringing me to a place of peace even when I am feeling very disturbed.”
Diane Lang, a therapist and author of “Creating Balance and Finding Happiness,” said in an email that there are several important factors to consider in regard to mental health and nature.
“We know that walking four times a week for 20 to 30 minutes is almost as effective as taking an anti-anxiety pill,” Lang said.
“Walking is that effective for stress/anxiety, but if you want to take it up a notch and be even happier, walk outside in nature. Nature has a calming effect. Walking around water is even better - water is relaxing.”
Being in the sun can give people their proper dose of Vitamin D, which in turn improves overall health.
“Vitamin D is great for our bones but also great for our mood,” Lang said.
“So, wear your sunscreen but get outdoors. Vitamin D helps improve mood. We suggest outside exercise and plenty of sunlight for people with seasonal disorder.”
Besides just walking outside (preferably near a natural body of water), make sure to bring a friend along so you can also enjoy the benefits of socialization, she added.
Tom Menditto, who runs a global coaching program, said he has used nature to overcome symptoms associated with five mental illnesses, and he currently takes no medication.
“I grew [up] near a nature reserve where they would recreate native villages and teach how to live ... like they used to,” Menditto said.
“I grew up learning how to make huts, build fires, make tools, make corn meal, drum, dance, and connect with nature in very profound ways. I got older, and trained in tai chi, meditation, Chinese martial arts, and developed an even deeper connection in learning from nature how to move, breath, eat, live, and unlock my mastery within.”
Now he is helping others take advantage of the benefits nature has to offer.
“Good old mother earth has taught me everything, and quite literally saved my life,” Menditto said.
“Nature is always here, and you are always a part of it. All you have to do is become aware, breathe, and just be present. The secret to nature is to be natural. That is to say ... letting go, and really just being you.”
Our society can be fast-paced, and it’s difficult to make time to relax and enjoy nature. However, making time to be engaged in the natural environment can be a major stress reliever. It allows people to think about just the plants and animals and enjoying the scenery if they allow themselves to let go of other thoughts.
“Being in nature also makes you feel a part of something greater,” Menditto said.
“It is a comforting feeling, and returning to the source of what many refer to as ‘mother nature.’ When we connect to something that is greater than us and we feel a part of it, then it helps us put our life into perspective. It helps us see the things that really matter, and also how we are never really alone.
“We are connected even though we may not know how,” he added.
“The breath I am breathing is composed of many plants, animals, and living beings that were around long before I was. We are all connected.”
Menditto has 13 short tips to help you become more connected to nature:
1) “Fill your house or office with some plants to [bring] the nature to you.”
2) “If moving, try to pick an office or home near nature with windows.”
3) “Play relaxing nature-based music to put you in the mood.”
4) “Go for brief walks when you have the time. Walk with mindfulness, and breathe with awareness.”
5) “Practice yoga, tai chi, or meditation as it will bring you more to this moment.”
6) “Drum or dance, as that is the rhythm of earth.”
7) “Recognize that nature is all around you. You are always connected to it.”
8) “When you have the time, plan some getaways with your friends, [such as] hiking, biking, rafting, or just throwing a Frisbee around.”
9) “Check out some waterfalls.”
10) “Put some nature pictures on your computer desktop.”
11) “Take car rides through nature areas and drive slowly to take in the sights.”
12) “Invite some friends over to do some gardening.”
13) “Spend some time with animals and trees. Trees have much to teach.”
Scott, Trudy. Email interview. June 6, 2012. http://www.antianxietyfoodsolution.com
Heart, Mikaya. Email interview. June 6, 2012.
Lang, Diane. Email interview. June 6, 2012.
Menditto, Tom. Email interview. June 6, 2012. http://www.pittsburghadhdcoach.com
Reviewed June 8, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith