The Covid-19 lockdown had all sorts of unforeseen consequences—some positive, most negative. Gardening skyrocketed, but so did rates of stress, substance abuse, and suicide.
There are many reasons for those unfortunate upticks. But here’s one reason you may not have considered: cooped-up people didn’t enjoy the nurturing power of nature.
Regardless of their age or culture, humans are hardwired to turn to nature to relieve stress. Even a simple plant in hospitals, offices, and schools can decrease stress and anxiety.
"Getting outside to breathe fresh air, see the sunrise, feel the breeze — these can be centering experiences that are vital to our mental wellness," says Lisa M. Carlson, president of the American Public Health Association. “It’s good medicine, and time with nature doesn’t require a prescription.”
Carson notes that one study, published in 2019, found people are considerably more likely to report that they’re healthy and happy if they spend just 120 minutes a week in nature. Unfortunately, even before the lockdown, people spent more than 90% of their time indoors.
So get outside more to maintain or improve your mood and your health! Here are some specific ways nature can help you do that:
Nature connects you to your spirituality
There are many names people give to the powerful, loving presence of nature: God, Earth Mother, or the Great Mystery, among other terms. But whatever name you use, you can best experience its (or her, depending on your framework) restorative power when you're out in nature.
As you fill your senses with the sights, sounds, and smells of the natural world, you may feel the presence of nature loving, supporting, and guiding you. You might experience an ah-ha moment of wisdom or insight. Nature helps you get in tune with your own spirit and with Spirit.
Nature connects you to other people
A study at the University of Illinois found that Chicago public housing residents who had trees and green space around their building were better off than tenants in tree-less buildings. The tenants with green space knew more people and were more connected with those people than tenants in tree-less buildings. Besides the increased sense of community, tenants with green space had lower levels of violent and aggressive behavior among domestic partners. Their streets had less crime, and the tenants were better able to cope with the stresses of life, including those caused by living in poverty.
These findings may be explained by fMRI, a technique that measures and maps brain activity. When study participants viewed nature scenes, the parts of the brain related to love and empathy were activated. On the other hand, viewing urban scenes lit up the brain's fear- and anxiety-associated areas.
Nature connects you to yourself
As the presence of nature washes over you, you feel comfortable in your own skin. Experiencing your own peace and strength, you reconnect with your essential inner being. You can put off your mask and be accepted as you are.
How is this possible? It has to do with what nature has and doesn’t have.
For instance, there are no mirrors in nature. Instead, you're focused on the scenery or on what you’re doing. Studies show that people's body image improves as they spend time in nature, and this outward focus may be one of the reasons for that.
Suppose you're alone in nature or with a loving friend or group of people. In that case, you also get relief from society’s disapproving -isms and phobias such as sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia. In nature, such marginalization just isn’t there.
What nature does have is diversity, glorious diversity! Mammoth sunflowers peacefully coexist with shrinking violets. You might even find a pink flower nestled in a cluster of yellow flowers.
In nature, you’ll think the different flower is beautiful and unique rather than ugly or odd. This acceptance of nature’s quirks unconsciously allows you to celebrate your differences.
Nature restores emotional wellbeing
We’ve touched on this already, but it’s worth a separate mention: getting out in nature affects general wellbeing. As the noise of our crazy culture subsides, your mind and the negative inner chatter calm down.
In one study, 95% of those interviewed reported that their mood improved after spending time outside. The study participants started off feeling depressed, stressed, and anxious, and shifted to being calmer and more balanced.
Other studies by Ulrich, Kim, and Cervinka found that participants improved after time in nature or viewing natural scenes. Nature helped improve people’s mood, psychological wellbeing, meaningfulness, and vitality.
Another interesting result of enjoying nature is that it helps increase your attention span. This applies to children as well as adults. Research on children with ADHD found that spending time in nature increased their attention span in the future.
Nature models sustainability
Our culture teaches us that we always need more: more money, more things, more delicious food. It doesn't teach us to think about how this over-consumption can harm others and the environment.
Natural ecosystems, on the other hand, model harmony and balance. Trees grow to a height determined by their genetics and the constraints of the environment around them. Squirrels busily bury nuts—not too many, not too few—to last them through the winter. Witnessing these sustainable cycles can help quiet your compulsion for more, more, more.
Nature helps us heal on many levels. For one thing, it helps us cope with pain. We’re genetically wired to be fascinated by trees, plants, water, and other natural elements. When you focus on natural scenes, you’re distracted from focusing on your pain.
Exposure to nature reduces blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and stress hormone production. Public health researchers Stamatakis and Mitchell say that it can even reduce mortality.
With all those benefits, it’s worth getting at least two hours out in nature, if you don’t already. Put it on your calendar and get it done. It’s not just exercise for your body—it’s exercise for your soul.