Can Nature Help Your Anxiety? (Yes!)
Once, my family went on a vacation to the Grand Canyon. I was in the middle of a miserable breakup, but I remember peering over the canyon’s edge for the first time, awed past speech by the grandeur and beauty and sheer size of it all. My problems didn’t disappear--but all of a sudden, they didn’t matter so much.
That time in the outdoors remains one of my most treasured memories, but it’s no surprise that I felt my heartbeat return to normal, my breathing relax, and a smile return to my face--turns out, nature has been scientifically proven to help with anxiety. Here’s how:
Nature Can Lower Your Cortisol Levels and Your Blood Pressure
We’ve known anecdotally that nature is soothing and relaxing, but recent science is proving it’s much more powerful than we thought. A 2010 review looked at the practice of Shinrin-yoku, also known as forest bathing. This fascinating Japanese practice involves spending time in wooded areas, “taking in” the forest.
Scientists compared cortisol, the stress hormone, in 20-23 year-olds who forest bathed and those who didn’t. They found that the people who spent time in nature had less cortisol charging through their bodies, as well as a lower pulse rate and lower blood pressure. Don’t have a forest nearby? That’s ok! You can still enjoy the anxiety-soothing benefits of nature. Go for a walk or run outside or even just take your morning coffee to your patio or balcony. Turn off your phone and instead, practice mindfulness.
Ask yourself: "What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you feel? What do you taste?"
I’m constantly amazed at what I see, feel, hear, smell, and even taste, even when I’m sticking to city sidewalks or just have five quick minutes to stand outside--and I always feel my breathing slow, my shoulders start to fall away from my ears, and my heart calm after a few minutes outdoors.
Nature Can Help Ward Off Depression, Too
Turning off the screens and choosing nature instead works to reduce anxiety by helping to reduce cognitive fatigue and stress--these are associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety--and improves focus in both adults and children. Nature doesn’t just help with anxiety, however; it also promotes overall mental wellness and can decrease depression.
This study found that exposure to nature led to improved moods in patients, and Mental Health Colorado, a non-profit that helps promote mental wellness, reports that “30 minutes of nature exposure per week reduces depression by 7 percent and can reduce high blood pressure by 9 percent.”
Nature contact during the workday can even lead to greater job satisfaction and less stress, but the really amazing news is that these benefits don’t involve hours of time in the forest--you can benefit from nature even in the form of a houseplant or a container garden. In a certain study, when patients viewed bonsai trees for just one minute, they experienced greater feelings of relaxation!
If you are unable to get outdoors or don’t consider yourself a plant person, even a nature documentary can help improve your mood. A 2019 study found that viewing images and videos of nature leads to increased relaxation. In other words, watching Nature or Planet Earth can be just what the doctor ordered for helping stave off feelings of anxiety.
Experts think that, like being in nature, viewing and learning about nature helps us feel like we’re connected to our world in a deeper sense--something we could all use more of right now!
I’m planting a garden in my backyard right now, and even though I have a notoriously black thumb, I can’t tell you how good it feels to get outside in the sunshine. Something about the dirt under my nails and the wind in the grass has me feeling less anxious about the future and more peaceful and happy in the present moment.