By Emilija Krysén
In a time of both justified and unjustified anxiety-ridden global panic, we often forget that our environment and surroundings can have profound impacts on our mental wellbeing.
Nature is an essential source of comfort for humans. It is also one that has been disregarded recently. It is vital to restore our lost connection, since humans were meant to be in nature, which is proven by our biology.
Humans evolved in nature, so it is no surprise that we are drawn to it, independent of culture or background. When outside, our bodies are returned to their natural state. This is because they are naturally programmed to be comforted by sounds in nature. Brighton and Sussex Medical School found that even when just playing artificial nature sounds, the “internal bodily systems that control the flight-or-fight and rest-digest autonomic nervous systems were affected.” In this study, participants had their heart rate and brain activity measured. They discovered a correlation between the sounds being played and the default mode network of the brain resting. This shows that the neurological parts that are active while the human body is resting are influenced by natural noises even if it is just in the background.
Nature offers many other benefits to the human psyche. Simply going on a walk in the woods can improve your mood and sleep patterns as well as reduce stress and anger. Breathing in fresh air raises the oxygen levels in your brain, which increases your levels of serotonin and consequently your mood. Many find the scenery distracts from the pain or discomfort of daily life, becoming more appreciative and grateful for the earth and themselves as a result of a gained mindfulness. This generally creates better coping mechanisms for sorting through emotions and deters destructive thinking patterns associated with mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety; you have the time to take a break or relax. This has been supported by many scientists including Professor Gregory Bratman. In an experiment at Stanford University, participants went on a 90 minute walk in either a natural or urban area. The people who walked in the natural area had decreased levels of negative introspective thinking than those that walked in the urban area. This type of rumination has been linked to the onset of depression.
Nature has also been shown to improve human creativity. A 2012 study by R. A. Atchley, P. Atchley and D.L Strayer showed a 50% increase in RAT score: a test that measures creative potential. The 56 adults that participated were divided into eight groups. Half of them completed the test on the morning of their hike, whereas the other half did it on the fourth morning. The candidates who finished the test before the hike were able to execute fewer of the tasks assigned to them. The candidates who finished the test during the hike showed higher levels of cognitive thinking. This line of research could alter the current understanding of the brain and may influence the way nature can be integrated into education.
Social connection is one of the most important traits of being human. Along with physical and mental benefits, nature can strengthen a sense of community. A series of studies by the University of Illinois showed that people living around trees and greenery knew a larger number of other tenants, as well as feeling more united and supported by the people around them. This research was conducted with 28 buildings that were structurally the same, but varied in whether the surrounding area was concrete or grass. A contributing factor could be the communal space, which paves the way for a better connection between neighbors. However, it cannot be denied that there is an increasing trend between nature and positive experiences for human quality of life.
Actively making nature a regular part of a daily routine, however, is unfortunately largely up to the individual to take the initiative. The lack of exposure to nature has followed hand-in-hand with a type of industrialization that has improved quality of life drastically, but has also left much to be desired in terms of spiritual connection with nature. This can be easily seen with the urban landscapes that make up most of human habitation. From schools and offices to restaurants and shopping malls, there is no end to the ongoing development of society. In addition to this, there is an increasing number of people who would rather experience the world digitally through their electronic devices. Digital tours, YouTube travel videos, and robotic pets have revolutionized access to natural world sites but make it easy to live through them.
I live in Switzerland, one of the most stunning gems of nature. I need only walk two minutes to a forest or take an hour train to see some of the most unique sceneries in the world. Despite this, I find it quite difficult to properly interact with nature on a daily basis. School and other commitments often take precedence. The day-to-day stresses of our lives often take away from our time with nature and this experience rings true for a lot of people.
The most important thing to remember, however, is that we are almost completely in charge of our environments. We can change our environments. We can change our connections. We can change our identities. We can even change ourselves. If we make the effort, we can successfully incorporate nature into facets of our lives we may not have even considered before. Start with adding plants in your rooms. Maybe even start a herb garden. Watching something grow has been proven to be healing and rewarding at the end. Choose natural materials in your home. Use wooden shelves, pebbles or textured rugs as decoration. Consider buying a candle or diffuser with natural scents such as lavender or pine. There are plenty of apps like "Calm and Tide" that provide an array of nature sounds including, but not limited to, rain, birds chirping and light wind. Even the smallest steps towards including nature into our daily lives can have powerful effects on our mental and physical wellbeing.
Connection to nature is fundamental in our very evolution, as it is equal parts soothing and restorative. It is therefore vital to preserve this relationship for the good of ourselves and the world we live in.
“The Positive Effects Of Nature On Your Mental Well-Being.” PositivePsychology.com.
“Five Ways Mother Nature Can Lift Your Mood.” PremierHealth .
“It's True: The Sound of Nature Helps Us Relax.” ScienceDaily.
“Stanford Researchers Find Mental Health Prescription: Nature.” Stanford News.
“How Does Nature Impact Our Wellbeing?” University of Minnesota.
“Healthy Minds.” WalkingforHealth.
"The Power of Trees." The Illinois Steward.
Emilija Krysén is 15 years old. She is from Sweden and Lithuania but currently lives in Basel, Switzerland. Emilija is passionate about music, literature, linguistics, history, and the pursuit of education.