Stress Relief and Depression Reduction with Nature

Ocean Views, Exposure to Nature Reduce Stress, Depression

Posted on December 12th, 2016

A new study has discovered a link between exposure to ocean vistas and positive states of mental health.

The study was sponsored by Michigan State University and published in the May 2016 edition of the peer-reviewed journal Health & Place. Using data obtained from the New Zealand Health Survey, which monitors the physical and mental health of the country’s citizens on an annual basis, researchers were able to cross-reference measurements of anxiety and mood disorders with geographic location. Specifically looking at data collected from the city of Wellington, they found that those who had unobstructed ocean or beach views registered lower for stress and depression than those who lacked visual access to such scenery. This was after adjustments were made to account for other potential determining factors such as age, sex and socioeconomic status.

Surprisingly, Wellington residents whose homes and apartments overlooked green areas did not, on average, score lower for anxiety or mood disorders. However, the New Zealand Health Survey report included no distinction between natural green spaces (forests) and manmade versions of the real thing like city parks or athletic playing fields. Consequently the Michigan State research team believes regular views of forestland might have had the same soothing effect as beach views, although the available data made it impossible to know for sure.

The Evidence for Nature’s Healing Effects

If this were the only study that had ever obtained such results, it might not be considered strong evidence of anything. But in fact it only reinforces previous studies that have found links between exposure to nature and more balanced states of emotional health.

Here are just three examples from a fairly long list:

  • A 2010 University of Rochester study revealed that just 20 minutes spent in unspoiled natural settings on a daily basis was enough to significantly boost a person’s energy and vitality.
  • In a study carried out by researchers from the University of Essex (UK) in 2013, 71% of participants experienced reductions in depression symptoms following regular nature walks.
  • Over the past several years, a mental health advocacy organization called Mind has been funding a series of projects designed to verify nature’s psychological healing effects. People judged at risk for mental health disorders have been given the opportunity to become involved in “green” activities like gardening or environmental conservation. During the testing that has followed, 69% of project participants have registered significant improvement in their states of emotional well-being.

More such examples could be mentioned, but the important point is that the relationship between exposure to nature and improved mental health is clear and undeniable.

The researchers behind the Health & Place study speculate that knowledge of this connection could inspire city managers, urban planners, architects and housing developers to make smarter, saner decisions about how to zone, regulate, design and construct new housing projects. It could be in everyone’s interest to take such factors into account, since exposure to nature — or the lack thereof — could have public health implications that go beyond what has been acknowledged and understood in the past.

Mental Illness and Our Disconnect With Nature

While the relationship between nature and good mental health is obvious, it is not always clear whether nature itself has healing effects or whether its absence causes deficiencies that otherwise may not exist. Urban environments may by their very nature be oppressive to the human spirit, and the positive effects of blue ocean views detected in this Michigan State study may represent relatively normal and natural psychological and emotional states. In other words, the absence of nature may be one of the sources of our mental health crisis, a root cause of the problem at a fundamental level.

Regardless of the true reasons for nature’s apparent restorative ability, there is no doubt that exposure to nature should be included in the healing regimens of those who suffer from mental health or substance use problems. The deeper and more intense the exposure the better, and anyone who benefits from outdoor recreational therapy, nature walks or nature-based hobbies might be wise to consider relocation to less densely-populated and developed regions as a way to invigorate their recovery process.

If excessive urbanization is inherently depressing to some human beings while deeper involvement with nature is inherently liberating, we might have to rethink the way we conceptualize mental health disorders and the best methods for treatment. These illnesses may in part be a residue of societal imbalance, and if we begin to work on that imbalance it could do wonders for our collective sense of belonging and emotional wellness.

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