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Why 'Getting Away' in Nature Is Good for Your Mental Health

It’s intuitive that getting out in nature is rejuvenating, but why? What is it about going over the river and through the woods that helps us clear our heads? This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen dives into why our minds love to go green.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
Episode #216
image of people hiking in nature

Why Is Green Space So Good for Our Mental Health?

One possible answer comes from attention restoration theory. Here’s the lowdown: Our modern world demands our attention in ways that drain us. We are bombarded with tasks that make us focus on one thing and screen out everything else, from internet ads to pinging cell phones to graffiti, leading to what’s called attention fatigue.

Attention fatigue basically makes us all look like we have temporary ADHD—we’re more impulsive, more distractible, less able to deliberately direct our attention or inhibit unwanted stimuli. 

The way to treat attention fatigue is simply to rest and recharge the parts of our brain that control deliberate attention. To do that, it’s helpful to switch to activities that hold our attention involuntarily. In psychology-speak, stimuli that require no effort for us to pay attention to and are naturally attracting are dubbed fascinating

Hard Fascination vs. Soft Fascination

Now, some man-made experiences like Fortnite or the Final Four may hold our attention, but they invoke what’s called hard fascination, meaning they suck in all our attention—there’s no bandwidth left over for reflection, contemplation, or renewal.

By contrast, looking at a flowing stream, a sunset, or listening to wind blow through trees evokes soft fascination—we take it all in effortlessly. Plus, there’s room left over. We have the bandwidth to breathe and reflect. And that combo is, perhaps, why nature is so good for our mental health.

Now, man-made environments like museums or beautiful architecture can facilitate this, too, but nature seems to do it best. And without access to nature, the theory goes, we are more mentally fatigued, which makes us less effective, more irritable, more impulsive, and less able to handle stress, all of which can take a toll on our mental health. 

ADHD studies bear this out, where even a 20-minute walk through a park, as compared to a residential area or an urban downtown area, was enough to improve attention in kids with ADHD. Likewise, kids’ activities in green, outdoor spaces reduced subsequent ADHD symptomssignificantly more than activities indoors or in built outdoor settings, even when the activities were the same. For example, soccer in an outdoor field reduced symptoms to a greater extent than soccer in a paved lot or an indoor gym. Furthermore, attention improved, not just hyperactivity symptoms, so it wasn’t simply that outdoor activities allowed kids to burn off extra energy. Something additional—and attentional—was happening. 

A second hypothesis is perhaps the simplest: evolutionarily, we are meant to be in nature. Our sensory systems evolved in nature over millennia, so when we reconnect with it, our brains simply click. We’re home. 

To observe our brain on nature, a team of researchers from Scotland took participants on walks through an urban shopping district, a commercial zone, and a park. The twist? The participants brain waves were monitored on each walk. When walking into the park, their brain waves shifted into a more relaxed state, which reversed as soon as they walked out the park exit. 

The good news is that you don’t need an immersive experience. You don’t have to run naked through the woods or live in a tree, though if that’s your thing, more power to you. Instead, take the scenic route home. Position your furniture so you see green from your windows. Fill your cubicle and apartment with house plants. Pass up the treadmill in favor of the path by the river. You can get a dose of green, and the benefits thereof, even if your favorite outdoor activity is going back inside.

Image of people hiking in nature © Shutterstock

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