photo from the author’s collection
As a child and as a teenager, I was a Girl Scout. We hiked. We camped. We did all sorts of nature-related crafts. We ate wild plants. Well into my 20s, I was an outdoorsy-type person, hiking on the Appalachian Trail, walking to all my classes through the leafy green environs of my college campus, even trudging contentedly through the copious snowfall. One year I lived in a log cabin on a hilltop so far from civilization that you had to go to town to pick up your mail.
All the while, I had bipolar disorder, and it was relentless, I experienced the inevitable mood swings, the crashing lows, the tempestuous highs, the confusing mixed states.
Now, everywhere you turn, there are articles and memes touting how time spent in nature is good for various psychiatric conditions. When you look more closely, though, the studies often refer to simply alleviating bad moods or improving cardiovascular health. Very few of them seem to apply to actual mental illnesses. Perhaps this is to be expected, since improvements in emotions or mental health are largely self-reported or tracked by means of a survey. It’s hard to quantify mental health. But let’s take a look at some of the studies anyway.
Harvard Men’s Health Watch published an article called “Sour Mood Getting You Down? Get Back to Nature.” The subtitle on the piece read, “Research suggests that mood disorders can be lifted by spending more time outdoors.” Then the article went on to suggest that “ecotherapy” shows “a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.”
The subtitle suggests that the outdoors has an effect on alleviating mood disorders. The body of the article, though, stresses alleviating unpleasant moods in general, not primarily what psychiatrists would class as mood disorders. The article cited a 2014 study saying that “people who had recently experienced stressful life events like a serious illness, death of a loved one, or unemployment had the greatest mental boost from a group nature outing.” Stressful and sad events, certainly, but not mood disorders such as PTSD, clinical depression, or bipolar disorder.
The article also cites a report published online March 27, 2017, by Scientific Reports, which suggests that “listening to natural sounds caused the listeners’ brain connectivity to reflect an outward-directed focus of attention, a process that occurs during wakeful rest periods like daydreaming. Listening to artificial sounds created an inward-directed focus, which occurs during states of anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression.” It does mention psychiatric disorders, but it says only that inward-directed focus occurs during these states, not that inward-directed focus causes them.
Greater Good published an article that claims, among other things, that “scientists are beginning to find evidence that being in nature has a profound impact on our brains and our behavior, helping us to reduce anxiety, brooding, and stress, and increase our attention capacity, creativity, and our ability to connect with other people.” Again, this says nothing about actual psychiatric disorders.
The article also cited a Japanese study: “Results showed that those who walked in forests had significantly lower heart rates and higher heart rate variability (indicating more relaxation and less stress), and reported better moods and less anxiety, than those who walked in urban settings.” The researchers concluded that there’s something about being in nature that had a beneficial effect on stress reduction, above and beyond what exercise alone might have produced.
This, of course, does not apply to those in urban settings who do not have much access to forests or sometimes even parks. And the abstract of the Japanese study says, “Despite increasing attention toward forest therapy as an alternative medicine, very little evidence continues to be available on its therapeutic effects. Therefore, this study was focused on elucidating the health benefits of forest walking on cardiovascular reactivity.” It doesn’t really deliver what the headline offers: “How nature makes you kinder, happier, more creative.” Good heart health is, of course, a good thing, but to extrapolate that to mental health benefits is quite a stretch.
The UK’s Mind.org does offer a link between ecotherapy and mental health in one instance, at least: “Being outside in natural light can … be helpful if you experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that affects people during particular seasons or times of year.” This article also acknowledges that there are “other options for treatment and support – different things work for different people….You might do an ecotherapy programme on its own, or alongside other treatments such as talking therapies, arts and creative therapies and/or medication. Some ecotherapy sessions follow a set structure, and incorporate types of talking therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). People in the group may or may not have experience of mental health problems, but the main focus is usually working together on the shared activity.” This at least sounds both more scientific and more likely to produce results.
If a walk in a natural setting does you good and alleviates your symptoms of mental illness, then by all means, make it part of your routine (or do it as often as you can manage). My bipolar depressions, however, are so debilitating that I am unable to plan, much less embark on, a walk in nature, even as far as the mailbox. Bringing nature indoors is, of course, an alternative. But the little plant pictured here, which needs two ounces of water once a month, is all I can really handle.