Spending more time in nature makes perfect sense when we feel that pull. Our brains and bodies are basically hardwired to sync with the laws of nature and the rise and fall of the sun and change of seasons. That 24/7 work-a-day world is not nature’s way.
By 2015, 70% of the population were living in urban areas and it’s becoming increasingly important to understand the importance of nature’s presence in our lives. Living in the city is linked to anxiety and mood disorders as well as schizophrenia more so than those living in more rural environments. Douglas Mental Health University Institute at McGill University in Canada researchers set out to determine if changes in neural processes might be responsible for these findings.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to monitor the brains of 32 healthy adults that were asked to complete difficult math problems while being timed and hearing negative verbal responses. Those in urban environments had increased activity in the amygdala area of the brain that is involved in emotions such as fear and responses to threats. Those in cities during the first 15 years of their life had increased activity, so those who grew up in an urban area had a greater sensitivity to stress.
Daniel Kennedy, Ph.D. and Ralph Adolphs, Ph.D, both of California Institute of Technology, explained that city living likely affects everyone differently, and the level of autonomy may play a role in how stressful it is for you. For instance, the ability and preference to cope with city life in New York City for some, and where others would happily swap it for a desert island.
Nature has the ability to calm and heal the human body and mind.
They published in PNAS that people who took a 90 minute walk in nature reported lower levels of rumination and had reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk of mental illness such as depression, than those who took a comparable walk in the city. This does suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health.
A study that followed more than 100,000 women that lived near higher levels of green vegetation had a 12% lower rate of non-accidental premature death compared to those living near areas with the least vegetation. Those in greener areas had 41% lower death rate for kidney disease, 34% lower death rate for respiratory disease and 13% lower death rate for cancer. Researchers believe that 30% of the longevity benefit may be due to nature’s beneficial effect on mental health. The cognitive function may also improve, as indicated by a study of 2,600 children between the ages of 7 & 10. Working memory and decreased inattentiveness had improved, especially at school.
Some additional benefits of spending time in nature are:
- Improved focus
- Boosts in creativity
- A better workout
- Less pain and better sleep
A quick “nature retreat” might provide physical and mental restoration according to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. This study focused on the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems that handle stress, either by triggering the fight-or-flight” response or by enhancing physiological calm.
Seek to make nature part of your regular day even if in some activity as simple as walking down your tree-lined street, attending to your backyard garden or even just eating lunch outdoors in a city park or your back patio. Just immerse yourself more fully in nature to recharge yourself and make that link back to nature.
-Dr Fredda Branyon