Nature and Mental Health: What's the Link?

We have all heard our parents say, or told our kids, to get out the house and into nature because it’s “good for you”. But is there actually any evidence behind this, or is it just an excuse to get away from the screens?

The concept of connectedness to nature boosting your mental health has documented for decades. An example of this in practice is shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”, which developed in Japan in the 1980’s (Clifford, 2018). Shinrin-yoku involves taking a slow walk and immersing yourself in the forest environment by paying attention to each of your five senses. Similar concepts exist in many cultures, including on Australian soil, with connection to country forming a vital component of Aboriginal wellbeing.

A possible theory behind this phenomenon is Attention Restoration Theory (Kaplan & Kapan, 1989). With the modern age of technology, we find ourselves consumed by screens, social media, and advertising everywhere we go. Our attention is spread between a million things at once, leading us to feel stressed. Attention Restoration Theory suggests that when we get outside in nature, we can bring our attention back to the simplistic, natural elements around us as a form of Mindfulness (Kaplan & Berman, 2010).

In Japan, the forests are the perfect place to reconnect with nature. Whilst we have a different terrain in Australia, there are still ways we can learn to connect with the natural environment that we do have. The type of environment does seem to be important in the level of benefit you receive. Research shows that at least 120 minutes with a wide panoramic view of nature is the most effective time frame to boost your mental health (White et al., 2019). The less urban environment around, the more beneficial the time spent outdoors is likely to be. For example, views of a natural setting is likely to be more beneficial than that of an urban setting. Studies have shown that viewing rural and natural settings compared to urban settings result in decreased stress and anxiety, and an increase in overall positive mood, enhancing psychological wellbeing (Park et al., 2015).

But how does it boost your mental health, and what does that even mean?

Connecting with nature has shown to have preventative benefits, reducing the risk of developing mental health disorders and increasing overall wellbeing. In particular, there is evidence to suggest getting outdoors reduces the risk of developing mood disorders including depression, and anxiety (Mukherjee et al., 2017). An article by Galea and colleagues (2011) suggests there is a 40% lower risk of developing mood disorders by living in rural areas, compared to living in the city.

Nature therapy is one possible way of reducing mental fatigue, along with exercising regularly, eating a nutritious and balanced diet, reducing stress and taking regular breaks, but also reducing noise, and taking time to engage in activities of interest. Restorative experiences in nature involve engaging with your natural surroundings in a meaningful and mindful way. This may involve sitting or walking outdoors in nature, listening and watching, or even gardening to engage all your senses.

There are also some studies that investigate the possibility that connecting with nature has physical healing benefits. A study by Ulrich (1984) measured various indicators between patients with a view of a natural scene, compared to a view of a brick wall. Overall, they found that patients with a view of a natural scene had shorter post-operative hospital stays, received fewer negative evaluative comments in nurses' notes, and took fewer potent analgesics. There may also be a link between connecting with nature, and reduced pain in recovering patients. A study by Lechtzin and colleagues (2010) investigated the link between nature scenery and sounds helping to reduce pain in some patients. Whilst their results showed no significant relationship, it is possible avenue for research going forward, into a safe and inexpensive accompaniment to medical treatment.

Nature Therapy has also been explored as a way of reducing symptoms of some behavioural disorders, including ADHD and ADD. When children attention difficulties engage with nature during play, symptoms have been shown to decrease in severity, when compared to indoor play (Faber-Taylor et al., 2001; Kuo & Faber Taylor, 2004). The children in these studies have demonstrated improved attention, improved mood and social interaction, and a decrease in behaviour problems and other ADHD symptoms (Collado & Staats, 2016), such as improving concentration and impulse control (Greenleaf et al., 2014).

How can you integrate this into your routine?

120 minutes is the recommended time spent in nature spent per week, to reap the most psychological benefit (White et al., 2019). The more natural the environment, the better – so try find spots that are less urbanised where you can immerse yourself in the environment around you. Some examples of ways to spend these 120 minutes includes a Sunday hike on a nature trail, or visiting an untouched beach on the coast on your weekend.

Life gets busy, and you may feel you don’t have time to go out and spend 120 minutes in nature. Research suggests that these 120 minutes can be broken up into shorter chunks of time, if that is easier to implement into your lifestyle (Hull & Michael, 1995). If 4 x 30-minute periods work better for you, perhaps in your lunch break during work, then that is a great option too! If you can’t make it to somewhere untouched, then maybe try your local park, or even your backyard if you’re working from home. This may not give you the same level of benefits as a completely natural environment, but it is better than staying inside.

Practice being mindful in your environment. Try to keep yourself in the present moment and use all your senses to fully immerse yourself in nature. You may find yourself getting distracted and that’s normal. Mindfulness is something that takes practice and perseverance, and you probably won’t get it right first go. Stick with it, and you may find yourself reaping the mental health benefits.


Written by Jessica Vander Hoeven - Psychologist at Northside Psychology (MProfPsych, BScPsych(Hons), BSocSc)