Do you wish you could spend more time in the Great Outdoors? With the demands of modern life and the distractions of our phones and TVs, we spend far less time in green spaces than we used to. But research has shown we still have a strong connection with nature.
While being stuck in unpleasant environments (like a harshly-lit office or a busy store) can make us feel anxious, irritable or even helpless, just a short amount of time in a natural environment can lift our spirits again.
In fact, spending time in nature actually has a host of benefits for your mental and physical health. Whether you’re visiting woodland, a lake or a city park, studies have found visiting natural environments can boost your wellbeing – especially if you’re having a difficult time.
In this article I’ll explore some of the surprising ways nature can heal you, and I’ll offer some practical tips for enjoying the natural world wherever you are.
First, let’s take a look at some ways nature can benefit you:
Nature relaxes you and lowers stress
Thanks to its quiet environment and pleasant scenery, being out in nature has a highly soothing effect. It lowers your blood pressure and heart rate, reduces muscle tension and even reduces the stress hormone cortisol. And there’s good news if you’re super-busy: just 15 minutes in a natural environment has been found to lower stress hormones.
It helps us stay mindful
Are you prone to over-thinking? Try spending some time in a local beauty spot. Because we’re genetically programmed to be interested in natural elements like plants and trees, being in nature helps us focus on our surroundings and the present moment – this gives our overactive minds a rest from worries and regrets.
Nature is great for your mental and physical health
Research has found that people who have access to natural spaces are less likely to experience mental health problems.
Similarly, studies have found that if you do suffer from anxiety or depression, spending time in nature can help relieve your symptoms. One reason might be that time outdoors boosts your intake of vitamin D, which helps relieve mood disorders. Sunshine also increases the happy hormone serotonin.
Natural surroundings have the power to improve your physical health, too. Green spaces have a positive impact on our endocrine and immune systems, and certain chemicals emitted by plants (called phytoncides) can actually make your immune system stronger.
It gives you the chance to exercise
Another reason being outdoors boosts your physical and mental health is the opportunity for exercise. Exercise is a well-known mood-enhancer (in many countries doctors can prescribe exercise for depression). And we get even more benefit when we exercise in green spaces.
It raises energy levels and helps you concentrate
It turns out a walk in the park might give you a better energy boost than your morning coffee! Studies have found being in a natural space for a few minutes each day increases your energy levels, while walks in nature can reduce mental fatigue and improve your ability to focus.
It makes you kinder to others
It might surprise you to learn that nature can actually make you kinder. Studies have found that people are more generous, caring and socially aware after spending time in green spaces, perhaps because being in nature helps us feel more connected with other living things.
How to bring more nature into your life
If you’d like to benefit from spending more time in nature, here are some suggestions you might like to try. Everybody is different, so you don’t have to try every tip – just pick the ones that appeal to you.
Schedule outdoor time into your daily routine
You don’t have to spend hours in nature to feel the benefit. Just 15 minutes can boost your wellbeing. If you’ve a busy lifestyle, you might want to add a short walk in your lunch break, or an early evening stroll in the park to your daily routine. If the weather’s good, another option is to enjoy a dinner outside.
Spend time in your garden
You might like to consider taking up gardening as a hobby, or simply relaxing in your garden. It can be a good idea to leave your phone or tablet indoors and focus instead on the pleasant smells, sounds and sights that surround you. If you don’t have a garden, you could apply for a spot at a local allotment.
Exercise gives you an added mood-boost if you do it outdoors. Try taking your yoga mat outside, or consider running in the park instead of on the treadmill. Alternatively, you might want to join a local walking or cycling group to meet like-minded people in your area.
Bring the outdoors in
If there’s no nature nearby and you don’t have a garden, you can still benefit from enjoying natural elements. Research has found that adding greenery to indoor spaces will reduce stress and anxiety. Get some houseplants to brighten your home, or try your hand at growing herbs in pots on your windowsill. You might want to consider hanging a birdfeeder near your window, too.
Even artificial representations of nature will calm you and improve your mood. The mental health charity Mind suggests using photos of your favourite places in nature as backgrounds on your phone or computer screen, and listening to apps that play natural sounds such as birdsong or rainfall.
Appreciate nature even if the weather’s bad
You don’t have to stay inside if the weather’s bad. Colder temperatures make it easier for intensive exercise such as running or jogging; different seasons also bring their own unique features to appreciate, like the crunch of golden leaves in autumn. It’s even possible to appreciate the beauty and soothing rhythm of rain, but you can do this from your window if you prefer not to venture outdoors!
Do your bit to help the environment – or try ecotherapy
Volunteering is great for your mental health: it combats stress, reduces depression and boosts your confidence. It’s also a good way to meet people if you’re feeling lonely. You might want to consider going to a litter-picking event, or volunteering at a conservation project in your area. There are now outdoor therapy projects available in the UK too, including farming and adventure activities.
Do you need someone to talk to?
I hope you’ve found this article helpful, and you’re feeling inspired to enjoy some more time in nature. Remember, if you are having a rough time, you don’t have to suffer alone. You can reach out to friends or family, call a helpline or speak to a mental health professional.
If you would like to talk to a therapist in confidence, I’m here to help. I’m a qualified person-centred counsellor and hypnotherapist. I offer UK-wide counselling via telephone, and online via Skype. You’re welcome to get in touch with me.
National Counselling Society (NCS). This is the professional association for counsellors. Their website has a national directory of qualified therapists, searchable by area.
The Samaritans – 116-123 is a helpline that’s free and open 24/7. It’s run by trained volunteers.
The Mental Health Foundation’s website has a guide called ‘Thriving with Nature’, which is free to download. It has advice on how to make the most of the UK’s natural spaces to benefit your mental health.
The Wildlife Trust website has various conservation volunteer opportunities, searchable by area.
The national mental health charity Mind has a useful section on its website about the benefits of being in nature, including tips for getting outdoors, and a list of various outdoor therapy projects.
The Conservation Volunteers is a charity that runs conservation projects to help the environment and promote health and wellbeing. They offer ‘green gym’ events: free conservation activities with a focus on mental and physical health.