Garfield Senior High School

Looking around and within: The effects of nature on mental health

The environment is a topic that’s been discussed quite extensively, especially given the crucial state of our planet. Mental health is also a topic that’s been increasingly talked about in recent years. But what’s not often talked about is the relationship between the two.

When we’re at our darkest moments, it’s often because we’re so wrapped up in our problems, allowing them to consume us completely and sap the happiness out of our lives.

It’s when we take a break from the daily demands of our lives and shift our surroundings that we can feel whole again. This is why we often turn to nature. It turns out, the connection between exposure to nature and psychological well-being is strong. It has to do with the feeling we get when we look up to the stars and step outside of ourselves- awe.

Nothing compares to the beauty and grandeur of the universe. And it is this kind of beauty that “allows us to zoom the camera lens far out from our tiny settings”, says Carlin Flora, former writer and editor for Psychology Today, in her article, “It’s Not All About You”.

And what better place to rekindle our sense of awe than nature? What is the ultimate “window into wonder?” asks journalist Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age. “It’s crawling out to the edge of the grass, listening to the wind and the trees, turning over a rock, and realizing that you’re not alone in the world.”

When we’re overwhelmed with stress, anxiety and depression, we’re bombarded by our own troublesome thoughts. This mulling over our worries, known as rumination, Flora states, is one of the main causes of depression and anxiety. Awe essentially is the opposite of rumination, filling us with a sense of purpose and inspiration.

Whether it’s gazing at the soft colors of a sunset, strolling through the enchanting ambience of a forest, falling into a field of flowers or staring into a lover’s eyes, being in awe involves losing yourself in someone or something.

People with depression tend to overthink and criticize themselves constantly. Samantha Gluck, in her article, “Important Things to Know if Your Relative Suffers From Depression” describes this as a “continual, critical internal voice tearing the person down, questioning every move, second-guessing every decision.”

This is often why people with severe depression may appear as self-absorbed and oblivious to their external environment. Being immersed in nature not only awakens our physical senses but has the power to reawaken us from our own mental turmoil.

Anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses are more prevalent among city dwellers. However, visits to nature-rich environments can lead to an instant reduction in stress hormones, Carlin Flora further states.

She proceeds to cite a university study conducted by Stanford researcher Gregory Bratman, which found that college students who walked through green, leafy areas of their campus were happier and more attentive afterward than those assigned to hang out in areas near traffic.

Flora then cites another study, conducted in 2014 by authors David Pearson and Tony Craig, which details the cognitive benefits of being in nature. While providing an escape from everyday life as well as a perception of vast open space, these nature-filled environments serve as “restorative environments.”

Even a replication of nature, like a film or photograph depicting natural scenes, can lead to greater attention spans and a reduction in mental fatigue. Places like museums, monasteries and art galleries, can produce these same effects, all suitable alternatives to city dwellers.

So often we detach ourselves from nature, especially in our world today. For the first time in history, more humans are living in cities than in the countryside. And now more than ever we are engrossed in our cellphones, embroiled in the endless motion of urban life, with very few interactions with nature.

Louv, who aims to establish more nature-rich parks, homes, and schools, calls on us to bring more nature into our lives, “not only to slow down the biodiversity collapse, but to make ourselves healthier—mentally, physically, spiritually.”

That’s where environmental psychology comes in, which focuses on the interplay between humans and their surroundings. While this sector of psychology is still rather new and not frequently discussed yet, it may be one of the most important subjects to know.

Environmental psychology not only involves studying humans’ psychological responses to their surroundings, but also focuses on how an environment can be changed to improve human interaction and satisfaction.

Given the huge influence nature has on overall mental well-being, it may reveal to us that the outer world we’re encompassed by, as well as the inner world within, aren’t so disconnected after all. And given the findings about environmental psychology aforementioned, we have further cause to protect our planet. Because protecting the world around us also means protecting the world within.