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  • Writer's pictureDr. Lisabeth Medlock

Want Health and Happiness: Nature is What you Need

Research is piling up showing nature exposure improves physical health, decreases stress and anxiety, and makes you happier and more creative.

It feels good to be outside, whether it’s strolling through a forest, rafting down a river or just walking on a beach. Now we know that nature is good for you in many ways. The research is piling up showing nature exposure improves physical health, decreases stress and anxiety, and makes you happier and more creative. Nature is what you need, and it’s free and easy to access.

Not only does nature have positive effects on physical health, such as blood pressure, cardiovascular functioning, and inflammatory disorders like arthritis, it also changes our brain and our mood. David Strayer, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Utah, and other researchers have conducted studies on people during nature trips using EEG, tests of concentration, problem solving, memory and creativity, and self-reported stress and mood. After people have been in nature, they perform significantly better on tests of creative thinking and insight problem-solving. They report better mood and their EEG’s, which measure brain activity, look different.

Nature changes our brain. In a sense, it lets it rest and quiets it. Strayer believes the frontal cortex (our executive taskmaster) gets a break, a respite of sorts. Especially the attention network, which typically gets overworked and overwhelmed because so many things demand our attention and we are “plugged in” much of the time. When the attention network is freed up, other parts of the brain appear to take over, like those associated with sensory perception, empathy and productive day-dreaming. Listen to Strayer deliver a TED talk about his work

Strayer studied people on outdoor adventures for two to three days, but the positive effects of nature can occur in much shorter time periods. A team of researchers from Stanford University found that participants who walked for 90 minutes through a green park on campus, versus strolling next to a loud nearby highway, exhibited “quieter” brains and dwelled less on the negative aspects of their lives (vs. how they felt pre-walk) in follow-up brain scans and questionnaires. They also experienced decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with depression. These findings suggest that you don’t have to do extravagant, extraordinary experiences in nature to get benefits or improve well-being.

The positive effects of nature may be related to awe. Being in nature is where we are most likely to experience awe, and research is showing that awe is powerful. Awe is the feeling we get in the presence of something vast that challenges our understanding of the world, like looking up at millions of stars in the night sky or seeing the Grand Canyon. Researchers speculate that awe may benefit well-being by inducing a “small self”—the sense that you are in the presence of something bigger than yourself—which may make past and present worries feel less significant by comparison. Awe helps you get out of your head and gain perspective. People also tend to feel a cascade of other positive emotions such as joy and gratitude, which are linked to greater health and well-being. Research shows that people have higher well-being on days when they have positive experiences of awe, compared to days with no awe. So it appears the AWE moments are just as important as the AHA moments.

Lastly, being in nature encourages mindfulness. Researcher Ellen Langer defines mindfulness as the “simple act of actively noticing things.” I have used the simply noticing technique with clients for over 10 years. I have them spend a part of a day or a whole day just actively noticing and describing everything around them; things they may have never noticed before. This practice pulls you out of the autopilot mode and of your inner thoughts and monologues and into your body and the present moment. There is so much to notice in natural settings, so many things to draw your attention, that it makes the simply noticing practice seem effortless.

Nature is one of the keys to health, happiness and well being, even in small doses. So make the space and take the time to incorporate being in nature, whether it be walking through a garden or through a park or a weekend hike, into your routine.

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