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4 Ways Nature Improves Your Mental Health

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Purple wildflowers blossom.
Stems of purple lupine blossom along Grizzly Peak Boulevard in Berkeley, on April 26, 2023. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

Nesrin Tarablosi is the founder of Adventure Mama of 3, an Instagram page where she shares her tips for exploring the outdoors with her three kids. Tarablosi has always loved the outdoors, but previously felt like she needed someone with her for protection, a feeling that held her back for many years.

She cherishes her memories of spending time with her father watching a sunrise, or running on the beach. But a few years ago her father suffered a stroke, was in an induced coma for about a month, and never returned to his normal state. This was around the same time Tarablosi gave birth, and was experiencing postpartum depression alongside grief from her father’s condition.

During this period, at her lowest point, she thought to herself: “There’s no way I can heal from this.”

She got into her car and decided to embark on a solo hike. She drove from San José to Point Reyes National Seashore. When she arrived, it was close to sunset, and the doubts crept in.

“I remember seeing a ranger in the parking lot and I’m just like, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing?’” she said.

She decided to proceed and the ranger recommended the Divide Meadows trail, which meanders from the Bear Valley trailhead to Bear Valley Creek, toward a meadow.

Tarablosi recalls asking the ranger: “How do I know what the Divide Meadow trail is?” He said: “Trust me, you’re going to know.”

“Once we got there, I saw this big opening with the cloud[s] just coming in over the trees, and it just completely took my breath away,” Tarablosi said.

“I remember coming back from that hike, and I just felt completely uplifted,” she said.

Whether it’s hiking a trail or simply sitting on the grass while enjoying a good book, we’ve all experienced that dose of happiness that comes from spending time in nature. What is it about immersing ourselves in nature that makes us feel so good? It turns out, there’s some fascinating science behind those feelings.

What the research suggests: Just 20 minutes in blue spaces might do the trick

Spending time in nature has positive effects on both short-term and long-term mental health outcomes and can improve the quality of life, according to researchers at the World Health Organization (PDF).

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In fact, spending time in forests, parks, gardens, or coastlines can even reduce climate anxiety, according to the research.

Other studies have demonstrated that just 20 minutes in blue spaces, near the water swimming in a lake, soaking in a river, or splashing in the ocean’s waves can positively impact our mental well-being and physical activity levels. Residents living in neighborhoods with parks and other green spaces or along the coast report better overall health.

You might have heard of nature rituals such as the Japanese practice known as shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing,” which involves spending extended periods of time with trees to reap their many health benefits. Research has shown that this practice can reduce stress, anxiety, depression and anger.

Nature helps your brain relax and restore

Being out in nature has a restorative effect on individuals living in cities. Bustling urban life can lead to mental fatigue, consume our brain energy, and leave people stressed out, according to Dr. Nooshin Razani, a pediatrician, clinical scientist, and associate professor at UCSF, where she directs the Center for Nature and Health. The organization’s mission is to improve children’s health and well-being through connections with nature.

Nature captures our attention effortlessly, helping to relax our brains and, over time, enhance our creativity. Within just minutes of being immersed in a natural environment, many people can restore their attention leading to an improved state of mind. Nature has also been proven to help improve working memory, which helps the brain with tasks like learning, problem-solving and reasoning, according to Razani.

Preethi Chandrasekhar, a content creator and founder of Outdoorsy South Asians, moved to the U.S. as a child and had to grapple with fitting into a new culture and navigating life in the Midwest as a pre-teen at an all-white school. “Because I had been made fun of so much in school for being a different color, I honestly didn’t want to be who I was,” she recalled.

Her passion for the outdoors began as an adult, as a way to “get out of my own head,” she said. It all started on a backpacking trip with friends one summer in the Inyo National Forest.

While immersing herself in nature, she discovered solace, self-confidence and acceptance. “It was magical. It didn’t feel judgmental. It felt very freeing,” she said.

“It genuinely allowed me to meet myself for the first time and also learn to start liking myself and then accepting myself just the way that I was,” she said.

When people are in nature, they feel more connected to natural life cycles and to animals and plants. “We are part of a larger family and plants and animals are a part of that family,” said Razani. People have reported feeling less lonely and more connected when they are in natural spaces according to Razani.

“It could even be a connection to yourself, like being more physically present in your body at that time,” she said.

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Happiness hormones are released when we’re in nature

Being in a natural environment changes our brain chemistry, tweaking chemicals like dopamine and serotonin that affect how we feel, flooding our bodies with positive signals, according to Dr. Leticia Márquez-Magaña, a scientist and professor of biology at San Francisco State University.

Several other factors can also help make a person feel happy, including being with loved ones, or feeling a sense of service, said Márquez-Magaña.

Being in nature can also help people experience awe (PDF). “Being in a state of awe triggers hormonal reactions that are important for well-being,” Márquez-Magaña said.

Deandre Latour felt that sense of awe as a child when he first experienced snow, hail and sunshine all in a single day during his visit to Yosemite National Park.

“Being so young and seeing that, not even knowing that those things could happen in one day, had a huge impact on me,” Latour said.

When he first started hiking, he mostly did it alone, which provided him with time to reflect. “When do you really have time to sit back, reflect on things, consider things, and see where you want to head? That’s what nature gave me, the opportunity to sit next to a waterfall or a flowing stream of water. You don’t realize how relaxing and calming that is,” he said.

He says hiking played a significant role in helping him overcome depression following the loss of his parents. “When I found hiking, it was like I had something to live for all over again,” Latour said.

When people spend a lot of time indoors or get sucked into social media, they can feel isolated and lonely.

This can increase feelings of depression, according to Bita Shooshani, a queer Iranian therapist based in Oakland. “Just being outside with others breaks that sense of isolation, and isolation is often associated with mental illness,” Shooshani said. “When we’re in nature, our senses are much more engaged.”

Today, Latour is the founder of the Bay Area hiking community, Melanated Adventures, a group he started to encourage folks to “discover their capabilities in new and interesting ways.” It’s also a safe space for Black people and people of color looking for a hiking community in the Bay Area.

Latour started the group in 2021, aiming to share his hiking experiences with others in the community. He loves witnessing people’s reactions when they reach the summit of a hike for the first time. “It is uplifting. It keeps me going,” he said.

In his experience leading groups of new hikers, he emphasizes the importance of overcoming fear. “It’s not always how you perceive it to be. Yes, it looks impossible from ground zero, ‘we’ll never make it up there.’ And yet, here we are [at the top], standing up here,” he said.

Being in a relationship with nature helps with mindfulness

Mindfulness — an awareness of your body and connecting to your body and mind is enhanced through nature. It’s a sensory experience that allows you to connect with what you smell, see and hear.

“It helps alter our state of mind when we go outside and connect with the greater world around us,” said Leslie Hammer, a clinical social worker and ecotherapist.

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For children, nature provides an excellent landscape for exploration and helps them become mindful when they are playing. It’s valuable for their development, said Razani.

The same can be said for how nature benefits adults. Adults need to adopt a child-centric view when they’re in nature, Razani said, adding “Adults need play too.”

Hammer emphasizes that having a relationship with nature is a two-way street; as much as we enjoy nature’s benefits, we should also take care of our environment in return.

“When we are in a relationship with the land, water, sun and the plants we eat — it’s all in our nature. It’s all part of our human history. … to be in those relationships,” Hammer said.

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