Our Innate Hunger For Nature and How it Affects Mental Health

I enjoy time in my apartment; it’s safe and has everything I need to be comfortable. However, as I peer out the window at a small grouping of trees that leads to a larger nature reserve, something draws me towards it. As I walk on a small trail past the edge of the canopy, the outside urban environment slowly fades away into something that feels much more natural. My home is back in my apartment, but something about this little forest feels like home as well.

waterfall nature reduce anxietyHow Our Ancestors Saw Nature

Not too long ago, our nomadic ancestors called the endless forests, plains, deserts, and hills ‘home’. Their days were spent listening and experiencing nature, searching for food and places to take shelter. They had no concept of urbanization and the wonders it would hold. They couldn’t imagine what it would be like to leave the office and drive to the grocery store. Permanent housing that is always kept at 70 degrees despite the season would seem a bit foreign as well to say the least. These, along with all the other conveniences of modern urban life, have revolutionized the way we live.

This new way of life that 50% of humans (70% by 2050) globally experience and benefit from has a darker side that, until recently, has gone largely unaddressed. The wanderers of the past would likely panic at the sound of a blaring car horn. Crossing a road with 2000lb metal machines whizzing past might have been their demise. Although I enjoy my apartment, they might feel claustrophobic and trapped if they were limited to one bedroom and a small living area.

The moral of the story is that humans are becoming more and more urbanized because of the true benefits that can improve life but there are also many ways that cities are harming our mental health. One of these harms is that we are becoming increasingly disconnected with nature which is not as trivial as one may think.

The Link Between Nature and Mental Health

Nature Walks and Wellbeing

Luckily for us, scientists have been studying the link between nature and our mental health because the issue is becoming more evident. We as humans are connected to nature and can utilize that connection to decrease stress and anxiety and improve psychological well-being [1].

person walking nature increased vitalityIn one study, participants walked for just 15 minutes through a forest completely devoid of any signs of urbanization while another group walked in an urban environment. The result was that the forest walkers had a strong response in their parasympathetic state (relaxed) while the urban walkers experienced the opposite; a sympathetic response (fight or flight) [1].

Because of this, the forest group had lower heart rates, lower blood pressure, and a questionnaire showed that they were more relaxed and had lower stress and anxiety than when they started. Unfortunately, the urban walkers did not see these same benefits and many of them actually were worse off than when they started in terms of mental health. While I believe that taking a walk and getting exercise is extremely beneficial wherever it may be, try to make it a nature walk whenever possible.

“Participants [in the forest group] experienced less negative mood states such as tension-anxiety, anger-hostility, fatigue, and confusion and felt more comfortable, natural, soothed, and refreshed after forest walking.”

How Nature Can Change the Brain

Another study took place in an urban nature center like the one across the street from me. Interestingly, participants who walked in the nature center showed a decrease in subgenual prefrontal cortex activity. This part of the brain is associated with much of the negative rumination that is associated with anxiety and depression. In addition to this, they also experienced less rumination which was expected after the brain activity findings. Another group took a stroll through city streets which yielded no change in brain activity or rumination [2].

“accessible natural areas within urban contexts may be a critical resource for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.”

While walking through small plots of nature in urban environments and parks is both convenient and great for mental health, researchers found that the larger the nature reserve is, the more benefit there is to be had [3]. It seems as if our brains can’t be tricked into thinking we are in our natural environments by walking around small patches of city trees. We need to completely detach from the concrete jungle if we want a full reset and all of the mental health benefits that come with it.

Time Spent in Nature Increases Vitality

Outdoors vs indoorsAnother aspect of having good mental health is the amount of vitality a person has. Are they vibrant? Is the person full of life and energy or do they look like a wilted flower that hasn’t been watered or seen the sun for a few days? Experiencing true nature is to us like water and sunshine is to a flower.

When study participants went for just a 15-minute silent walk outside, researchers found that there was a statistically significant increase in self-reported vitality (determined from an in-depth questionnaire) [4]. I bet you can guess what happened to the group who went for a 15-minute walk indoors: a slight decrease in vitality.

“individuals walking outdoors reported a greater change in vitality compared with indoor walkers, controlling for social and physical activity”

This same group also did another much simpler study which was interesting nonetheless. They found that just being shown images of nature for two minutes and then imagining that you were there led to an increase in vitality while a photo of an urban environment proved to do the opposite. We as humans are so hungry for nature that we can feel more alive by just imagining that we are in a place free from buildings, streets, and cars.

How You Can Get These Benefits As Well

In terms of you as an individual, your situation may make it easy for you to find nature or you may be far, far away from it. Either way, if you can find just 15 minutes to reconnect with the environment of our ancestors, do it. This is a must if you wish to improve your vitality and decrease anxiety. Make it a habit to detach from city life just a couple times a week. Your mental health is worth it.

What’s your favorite way to connect with nature?

Let us know in the comments!


[1] Lee, Juyoung, et al. “Influence of Forest Therapy on Cardiovascular Relaxation in Young Adults.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 2014, 2014, pp. 1–7., doi:10.1155/2014/834360.
[2] Bratman, Gregory N., et al. “Nature Experience Reduces Rumination and Subgenual Prefrontal Cortex Activation.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 112, no. 28, 2015, pp. 8567–8572., doi:10.1073/pnas.1510459112.
[3] Tyrväinen, Liisa, et al. “The Influence of Urban Green Environments on Stress Relief Measures: A Field Experiment.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 38, 2014, pp. 1–9., doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2013.12.005.
[4] Ryan, Richard M., et al. “Vitalizing Effects of Being Outdoors and in Nature.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 30, no. 2, 2010, pp. 159–168., doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2009.10.009.

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