Nature Withdrawals: The Link between Nature and Mental Health

Image by Emily Jahn. Basswood Lake, BWCAW

Image by Emily Jahn. Basswood Lake, BWCAW

Packed into tiny dorm rooms, shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers on the CTA, living in the shadow of massive skyscrapers filled with thousands of tiny office cubicles - if you don’t always feel entirely at home in our sterilized modern world you aren’t alone. It’s incredible to think that we are still the same homo sapiens species that once depended on a subsistence lifestyle of hunting, scavenging and foraging. As society has progressed (but would you really call it entirely progress?), our minds and bodies may have been left behind.

We are built for the outdoors, however strange it might seem in our contemporary world of urban sprawl and orderly subdivisions. Our anatomy was shaped in a drastically different environment than the one we currently find ourselves in, as 90% of human history was carried out in a hunter-gatherer, migratory lifestyle. It wasn’t until the Neolithic Revolution about 12,000 years ago, when humans discovered agriculture, that they were able to settle in towns, villages, and eventually cities, culminating in the modern world as we know it. For context, anatomically modern humans are estimated to have emerged in Africa about 300,000 years ago. There’s a reason humans have a stronger involuntary fear response to spiders and snakes than they do to looking down the barrel of a gun. We haven’t lived our modern lifestyle cut-off from nature for long enough to fully adapt yet.

Now, a study estimates that the average human spends about 90% of their lifetime inside buildings. Unfortunately, our minds haven’t quite adjusted to the change. There is a correlation between mental illness and urban living, with scientists finding quantifiable evidence that decreased exposure to nature can lead to increased risk of depression, anxiety, and even schizophrenia. Compared with rural areas, people who live in cities have a 20% higher risk for depression, a 40% higher risk for mood disorders, and are twice as likely to develop schizophrenia.

Hiking appears to help. Just walking for 90 minutes in a wooded area compared with a four lane street filled with traffic led to decreased activity in an area of the brain involved in rumination on negative emotions, according to a Stanford research study, a finding which could have important implications for readjusting how we approach urban planning. In addition, reductions in stress levels and increases in well-being and emotional fulfillment have been noted simply as a result of viewing natural environments and landscapes, especially grasslands, in an interaction between the environment and the individual not completely understood.

In Stephen Kellert and Edward Wilson’s book The Biophilia Hypothesis, the authors argue for an innate, instinctual, and universal love of nature that all human beings possess, as well as a need to feel connected to the natural world in a drive similar to the documented need to feel connected to a group. Other theories focus on the idea that certain areas, especially ones around rivers and bodies of water, or grasslands with uninhibited sight lines, led to higher rates of survival for our ancestors, and thus a reduction in stress leading to the positive mental effects seen in more modern descendants.

One interesting theory posits that nature has a replenishing and restorative effect on a particular type of attention that often becomes overused and depleted in urban environments. Sustained, directed attention associated with focus and concentration (vital for academic success) is taxed more readily in our contemporary urban surroundings than it was while we were evolving. Viewing and spending time in nature allows this type of attention to rest, replenishing our ability to focus and helping us to feel better and more relaxed. Time spent simply looking out a window at a natural landscape or an urban green space can have quantifiable benefits on stress levels, attention, and even job satisfaction.

Whatever the reason, we ignore the link between nature and mental health at our own risk, literally. Remaining mindful of the power of natural spaces to improve our mental functioning and quality of life is essential as the world rapidly develops around us. Isolating ourselves from nature is shortsighted and flies in the face of thousands of years of evolution. There should remain a place for it, even if the future is made of concrete. As stress levels and pressures increase in our breakneck-paced modern society, perhaps a little peace of mind is closer and simpler than we think.