With increasingly busy lives, how does a walk in natural surroundings positively impact our mental wellbeing?
Use natural space to find the headspace
Quite often these days, you’ll hear of people self-prescribing a forest walk or a stroll in nature to settle their minds and find a way to detach from everyday stress. This has become an increasingly common trait among those living in urban areas who, overwhelmed by the big city or the general hustle and bustle of life, seek to spend a few days in nature to escape.
It is a phenomenon that most of us know works, too – a couple of days spent in rural relaxation, and we can return with our batteries recharged and ready to re-engage with modern life.
The sheer concentration of people in urban areas is growing faster than desired. Currently, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and the proportion is expected to continue to rise in the future.
It is estimated that, by 2050, seven out of ten people will live in large conurbations. Moreover, a rather horrific statistic forecasts that many of us will spend up to 90% of our lives within buildings.
Escape to the country
We understand more these days about why escaping to nature feels so good. A mechanism in the brain allows nature to change our perception of things. It’s called the amygdala. This is suggested in a study from a few years ago. In situations of stress, the amygdala is activated more in city dwellers than in people living in rural areas.
The amygdala is the region of the nervous system responsible for the control of emotions and feelings. This is logical because it is in a privileged position that allows it to establish connections with many different parts of the brain.
One of these regions is the frontal lobe, which explains why the amygdala inhibits behaviour and decision-making. The amygdala is also involved in other activities, such as controlling our eating (as it is responsible for the feeling of satiety, or how well-fed we are), managing fear and stress, structuring memories, regulating sexual behaviour and controlling aggression.
The essence of fear is survival. This portion of the brain also helps us survive by avoiding dangerous situations because it continually reviews the information provided by our senses, instantly detecting what may affect our survival (whether real or not).
Once that threat is identified, it develops a response that moves us away from risk and our probability of survival increases.
What are the advantages that nature can offer?
We can intervene in the amygdala to help it avoid anxiety and stress. It is possible to do it with medication – although science also offers us another cheaper and simpler option: just contact with nature.
A recent study has shown that repeated exposure to natural environments positively affects amygdala activity. People in frequent contact with nature present less activity in their amygdala during stressful situations. Interacting with the environment is, therefore, a way to improve mental health. The Japanese have a word for it: shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing“.
Many other studies have reached the same conclusion. They show that contact with nature increases our feeling of happiness and decreases mental anguish since this contact reduces negative emotions and stress.
It also gives us greater capacity to manage daily tasks, improving the so-called “working memory” ability and allowing us to store information in the brain temporarily. We must add an improvement in cognitive function – attention, memory, orientation – both in adults and children, with benefits in terms of imagination, creativity and school performance.
Can being alone be good for us?
Another advantage of going out into the countryside is that it is an activity that can be done alone. People who walk alone in nature are less prone to depression and stress.
Like any good treatment, contact with nature also requires the correct dosage. We must spend at least half an hour in nature weekly to feel the mental health benefits.
In conclusion, exposure to nature decreases amygdala activity and benefits stress-related brain regions. This suggests that walking in the countryside buffers the detrimental effects of city life. And in turn, it potentially acts as a preventive measure against the development of some mental disorders.
In search of a green oasis
Leaving the city searching for trees and clean air is not always within everyone’s reach. In this sense, we have an enemy: cities’ massive and uncontrolled growth, especially when urban planning does not include large green areas.
Even if such areas are included, it is of little use if they are for decorative purposes – not considering the benefits these areas could have for the mood of the city’s inhabitants.
The impact of urban green spaces on mental health has been the subject of research for years. Many scientists point out the need to include natural elements in our city projects, considering their many benefits to our psyche.
Look at Singapore as a fine example of this. Embracing the incorporation of greenery into urban planning proposals, once known as the ‘Garden City of Asia’, the state has recently rebranded itself as ‘the city within a garden.’ The above reasoning explains why this is the case.
In the meantime, and while we wait for our cities to become greener spaces, there is no other choice but to use the benefits of our natural environment. It is for our own good and will keep the amygdala happy, at least for a while.
What do you think of this article? Do you use walks in natural surroundings to benefit your mental health? Tell us more in the comments.