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Nature And Mental Health Go Hand In Hand

Who doesn’t love the outdoors? Even if you don’t consider yourself to be an “outdoorsy” person, I am willing to be that you enjoy the sunshine, or flowers, or some other aspect of nature. In fact, most people feel calmer or happier after spending time outside; so it stands to reason that nature really can impact our mental well-being. In fact, in a study completed by Harvard University, it was found that a 90-minute walk outside can decrease activity in the part of the brain that can focus on negative emotions, the prefrontal cortex. Not only can nature help decrease anxiety, depression, and seasonal affective disorder; it can also help lower blood pressure and stress hormones, according to another study done by Harvard University.

Andrea Taylor Ph.D and Frances Kuo Ph.D, researchers at the University of Illinois, did a study on the effects of nature on children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and found that increased time in nature led to an increased attention span later. That’s right, time spent outside can positively impact the attention span of your child, or even yourself. Taylor and Kuo discovered that time spent outside, even if it was in the same place over and over, can lead to a reduction in symptoms and behaviors related to ADHD. Taylor clarifies that the symptoms did not go away, but the symptoms and behaviors were notably milder in children who did not spend time outside.

Rachel Kaplan Ph.D and Stephan Kaplan Ph.D also noticed an increase in attention and improved mental health among those who spent time outdoors, or even had a desk facing a window. They identify two types of attention, direct or task oriented and fascination. They report that too much direct attention can lead to impulsivity and distractibility, so it is important to switch off direct attention. They found that the best way to do that was to spend time in green, natural spaces where we can be interested in the world around us, thus switching into fascinated attention and giving us a break from direct attention.

Now, I know what you may be thinking: “I don’t have time to go outside,” or “I don’t have the energy to go outside.” Well, I am here to tell you little hacks that will still allow you to get the benefits of being outside, even if you can’t, or don’t want to actually go outside. Perhaps one of the easiest things you can do is buy a sun lamp. While sun lamps might not help your body produce vitamin D, they will help to increase your energy and could help fight depression.

Another easy thing to do to get some of the benefits of nature would be to open your blinds and windows; weather permitting. If the weather will not allow for an open window, an open blind will still allow some natural light to get in so you can still receive those benefits. House plants are another great way to bring the outdoors inside so you can reap the benefits. Research shows that having something from nature to focus on can calm your brain. Research also shows that caring for something else can improve your mood. Worried about investing in a plant that you might forget to water? Get a cactus. They are typically easy to care for as they require little watering. Having pets at home or just being around animals can also have some great effects on our mental well-being and can mimic being outside. This is also something else to care for which can increase your mood.

Once you feel ready, you can head outside. An important thing to remember is that the location doesn’t actually matter. For example, you don’t have to be in the woods or on a beach to get nature’s benefits. If all you have time for is drinking your coffee on your front porch, you will still get a lot of benefits from being outside. If your neighbors are being super noisy or there are other disturbances, you might not feel as calm. If you have a special spot that is pleasing to you, like a spot at the park or down the street, you might feel more benefits from being there instead. So, while location isn’t the most important, finding somewhere that feels comfortable to you will be the most beneficial. Research shows that spending 20 to 30 minutes outside three times a week can really help. Remember that you can work up to that amount and don’t need to start there right out of the gate. Trying to make nature part of your routine will make it easier to keep up the habit of getting outdoors.

You also don’t have to go alone if you don’t want to. In fact, spending time outside with others can actually increase the benefits vs. being outside alone. Research done using MRI scans has shown that the regions of the brain responsible for love and empathy light up when looking at nature scenes. So it stands to reason that spending time outside with others can help foster more feelings of connection, which is important when you are struggling with depression or feeling generally disconnected from others. You can spend time outside with family by having backyard picnics, going on walks, and even creating scavenger hunts.

At the end of the day, there are links between spending time outside and improved physical and mental health. With that being said, nature is not a cure-all. If you are struggling with depression or anxiety or feel that talking with a therapist might be beneficial, contact Family Services of the Chautauqua Region (716) 488-1971, offering in person and telehealth visits.

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