Many people go on nature walks to ease tension, worry, or stress. There is something soothing and calming about a walk in the woods or by the ocean that brings reflection and relief. Why is that? What does nature have that we need? What have we learned from science that can answer these questions?
People Feel Better When in Nature
The science of nature walks and their impact on mental health is attracting increased attention and research these days. Especially since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health has been a growing concern throughout the world. In addition, global sensitivity towards humankind’s relationship with and effect on the environment also continues to increase.
For many, walking in nature is an accessible, affordable way to reduce mental distress, thus improving one’s overall mental health. As is the case with most forms of exercise, walking is already beneficial to human health. However, research suggests that when we walk out into nature positive effects are maximized. Exposure to nature is associated with diverse health benefits that include, for instance, the reduction of allergic and respiratory diseases.
Over Millions of Years, Humanity Became Attuned to Nature’s Presence
But why is it so different to take walks in nature? Yoshifumi Miyazaki who helped pioneer the field of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” claims that for over seven million years of human history, people have spent 99.99% of their time in nature. From Miyazaki’s perspective, we, as a species, are significantly more used to being in nature than in urban settings, hence why we feel better in nature: it is our “natural” environment. Over a period of seven million years, he proposes, our genes have developed to live better in natural settings.
Professor Miyazaki’s hypothesis is joined by many theories that elucidate the relationship between nature and human health. Attention Restoration Theory, for example, holds that getting in touch with nature helps us recover our concentration through effortless attention: we tend to pay attention to environmental stimuli effortlessly in nature, such as sunlight between leaves, the sounds of streams, the smell of mud and so on.
Nature Calms Anxiety and Stress
In 1991, Roger Ulrich and other researchers developed Stress Reduction Theory, which claims that looking at nature reduces human stress, augments physiological functions such as heart rate and blood pressure, and creates positive emotions. Similarly, more recent studies found that spending time in nature improves our immune system and helps us regulate our emotions by stimulating our “Soothing System”. Being in nature helps us feel safe and content via the parasympathetic system, instead of triggering fear or arousal via the sympathetic system.
Modern science has noted the diverse effects of getting in touch with nature. My recent meta-analysis, which evaluated nature’s effect on the reduction of negative mental health outcomes, identified that anxiety was the symptom reduced the most, followed by depression and anger.
Various types of natural settings can impact mental health differently, with urban woodlands having more positive effects than urban grasslands.
Nature walks can help soothe the anxiety that results from temporary stress, but do they also help long-term anxiety? A 2018 study by Song et. al., reported that participants who display high trait (long-term) anxiety demonstrated a greater reduction in depression after walking in nature. Though this result indicates some relevance of nature walks to ease trait anxiety, longitudinal evaluation—observing changes in individuals over time—is necessary to assess how nature impacts mental health traits.
How various types of natural settings impact our mental health differently needs to be understood, as well. Maes et al. reported, for instance, that urban woodlands had a more positive impact on mental health than did urban grasslands. Woodlands, after all, surround individuals with nature, whereas grasslands do not. Woodlands are more likely to enable effortless attention.
Their findings align with Attention Restoration Theory—wherein nature improves our ability to focus or direct our attention.
Being in Nature Triggers Unique Feelings of Awe
In one study, Piff et al. evaluated a sense of awe—a reaction to a greater object—that enables a visitor to nature to transcend their frame of reference. Awe is an effect associated with various pro-social behaviors, such as generosity and compassion. According to their research, looking up at a tall tree was associated with a sense of awe, whereas looking up at a building of the same height was not. Their findings suggest that there is a special power in nature for enhancing our mental health.
Knowledge gained from nature research can inform professionals in a variety of sectors including urban planners and mental health professionals. Urban planners can design a city with better access to nature and walk pathways. For example, Nagoya, the fourth most populous city in Japan with 2.3 million residents, maintains the presence of nature relatively well. There are green-rich parks and areas in the city that allow visitors and employees who work there to have a nature walk. Likewise, in Tokyo, where 13.9 million people live, awareness of nature—and its emphasis in urban policy—are both increasing. Meguro Sky Garden is a good example of this trend: a rooftop garden with more than 100 trees, offering a paramount view of Tokyo and beyond.
Mental health professionals can actively use nature to help their clients. The degree of the patient’s belief in nature may impact the effects of professional help, but nature can be one good source of recovery. As research findings in this area of mental health continue to increase, their applications will also need to be encouraged and refined.
Harmonizing with Nature is a Personal Journey
As a professor and researcher of mental health, my advice for those who wish to heal their mental health with nature-treatment techniques is to find your own way to harmonize with nature. In Japan, the process of learning is often described as shu-ha-ri: “Shu” means “to protect,” therefore, to learn, you first follow the fundamentals principles. “Ha” means “to break,” so next you break the basics to fit yourself. “Ri” means “to leave,” so, finally, to take ownership of what you learn, you leave the doctrine to create your own. Nature-treatment methods, including nature walks, can follow this path of mastery.
Ultimately each person wants to feel good through their interactions with nature, so a sense of fun, curiosity, and harmony is essential. Try to learn the basics and conduct research, then practice what you learn. As you do so more and more, adjust the practices to your mental health. That will lead you to your own way of healing yourself with nature.
*Yasuhiro Kotera, Ph.D. is currently the Academic Lead in Counselling, Psychotherapy, and Psychology at the University of Derby in the United Kingdom. As an Accredited Psychotherapist, he has been working with clients internationally, offering psychological support. As a researcher, he has more than 100 peer-review articles and several books published regarding mental health and cross-culture. One area of focus in his research and practice relates to nature-based interventions to reduce negative mental health symptoms. He is moving to the University of Nottingham as Associate Professor in Mental Health, where he will further explore mental health recovery and cultures.