Exploring Mental Health Outdoors

Written by Mark Livshots, MA, LPC, Clinical Associate, Men’s Programming Specialist 

When asked where they find the most peace and relaxation, many people may say “the outdoors”. Whether it be a forest preserve, mountains, bodies of water, or even a backyard, these sites in nature have brought solace and beauty to humans for thousands of years. Interestingly, to the surprise of some, one must not be physically active in nature to experience its benefits. A growing amount of research has shed light on the positive impact that being in nature has on our mental health. Let’s look at just a few examples…

The scents found in nature have been shown to have a positive impact on both physical and mental health. Researchers from Japan’s Department of Hygiene and Public Health examined the effects that the scents found in a forest setting have on various biological functions. They note that scents like forest pine and cypress boost the amount of natural killer cells (NK cells) that fight off infection and cancer. Consider stepping outside in your favorite natural area and breathing in all the scents of the local trees.

The viewing of natural scenes has its own benefits, too. A study examining post-operative patients in a Pennsylvania hospital assessed if there were any differences between patients whose rooms faced a courtyard with trees, plants, and shrubbery and patients whose rooms faced a brick wall. The comparative study concluded that the patients whose rooms had views of nature spent fewer days in the hospital, were administered fewer painkillers, and had better overall comments in the nurses’ charts.

Lastly, walking in a natural setting forces us to look around at our surroundings. As you now know, viewing nature has positive effects, but the horizontal eye movements that are made as we go for a walk affect our nervous system in a very interesting way. Lateral eye movements suppress amygdala activity in the brain (think fear, anger, trauma, etc.) and allow us to rest, recover, and reap all the benefits of being in nature. You’ll also likely see some interesting things, too! Consider taking a moment to appreciate the color of the leaves, the sound of the birds, or the flow of the water. What a great way to practice mindfulness.

As you continue examining the role that nature plays in your physical and mental health, please be mindful of your ability, mobility, and pain. As you learned earlier, there are many benefits that can be taken advantage of that do not require any strenuous activity. If you do feel comfortable moving and walking, please consider joining us for one of our monthly hikes! We offer both co-ed and men’s hikes at various local forest preserves that can be viewed on our calendar. Hope to see you there!