Greening Your Behavioral Health
The first step in improving your behavioral health might be as simple as spending a few minutes in a park. A recent study in Frontiers in Psychology finds that spending just twenty minutes per day walking or sitting in a place where you feel connected to nature can significantly lower your stress hormone levels. According to the Mayo Clinic, long-term increases in stress hormones can have deleterious effects on our health including increased risk of anxiety, depression, and more. The “nature pill” – a twenty-minute dose of outdoor time – is an environmental antidote to these spikes in stress hormones and the corresponding mental health risks.
In fact, using nature as a form of behavioral therapy is an emerging field of research into our health. A number of studies document how spending time engaging with nature – not necessarily even outdoors – can have profound effects on our moods, brain chemistry, and behavioral health. Research published in 2016 in The Journal of Positive Psychology demonstrated how a two-week nature intervention can increase happiness and well-being. Researcher Holli-Anne Passmore points out that “the difference in participants’ well-being – their happiness, sense of elevation, and their level of connectedness to other people, not just nature – was significantly higher” for participants who spent their two weeks focusing on natural objects versus the group of participants who focused on human-built objects.
Still further, a 2016 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explores how walking outdoors affects our brains. In the study, participants who took a 90-minute walk through a natural environment showed reduced neural activity in a part of the brain associated with risk of mental illness compared to participants who walked in an urban setting. A similar study in 2015 showed other health benefits including a decrease in anxiety. These outcomes indicate that “eco-therapy” has the potential to serve as a prophylactic against behavioral health disorders. In the case of a study conducted by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, there are indications that exposure to more natural spaces during childhood may positively affect our mental health in adulthood.
Finally, in an interview last fall with NPR’s Hidden Brain, researcher Ming Kuo shared her work into the relationship between exposure to greenery and elements of nature on the one hand and physical and behavioral health on the other. She discusses one study done in London involving neighborhood pharmacies. Researchers found that in neighborhoods alike in nearly all respects except the amount of greenspace, pharmacies in those with less greenery dispensed substantially more anxiety and depression medications. This result suggests that direct experience with nature can have a considerable effect on our behavioral health.
In all, these studies indicate a tremendous potential for “eco-therapy.” But this field is still developing and will need a great deal of further study before large-scale interventions and treatments can be implemented. In the meantime, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt for us all to take a short break from our offices, desks, and screens – and go outside.