BY LEAH JOANNA HOWITT
Mental health is a big topic on the UCLA campus this year. It is a very complicated subject, and one interesting aspect could lie in a connection to nature. Spending time in nature is now being seen as a possible form of preventative medicine, proven to decrease stress, depression, and anxiety.
Honestly, when I first read an article about a study explaining the links between nature and better health, I was not very intrigued. Not because I didn't agree, but because I thought that it was just common sense. I didn't understand why anyone would need to research it, or treat it like some kind of revelation. However, I never stopped to ask myself, "Why?"
We are beginning to learn that there are evolutionary and physiological mechanisms behind the benefits tied to spending time in nature. This scientific evidence is especially relevant now, because in 2007 more than half the world’s population lived in urban rather than rural environments for the first time. People living in urban areas have been shown to have higher levels of anxiety and depression than those in more rural areas. This seems pretty sensible, but there may be another reason: an answer for why nature is crucial to the very core of our personal health and development.
One hypothesis is that in urban environments there is a constant drain on our minds because we have to pay attention to so many stimuli. It’s not just the fact that we are continuously multitasking, but that none of the stimuli are natural for our brains, and thus require at least some level of focus. On the other hand, our mind is automatically drawn to interesting views in nature, or even just natural features like trees. We evolved in these settings, and survived longer if we noticed and remembered our environment, so we are programmed to notice and thrive in the natural world. Being outside invokes something called ‘involuntary attention.’ We don't even have to like it to get the benefits! Just being able to ease the constant multitasking and stimulus bombardment can provide cognitive and mental health boosts.
This is not to say that it’s ‘easy’ to be outside and in nature, and that it’s the solution to all mental health problems. Nature is beautiful, but it can also be frightening and intense. Natural disasters destroy in a matter of seconds and sea levels are rising as communities sink. However, the marked decrease of stress in people who spend more time in nature does seem to make sense, because it’s evolutionarily natural for us to the live this way. It is, in a sense, still our "safe space."
In fact, after my first year of college, I decided to take time off from school partly because of anxiety. During my year away from school, I completed a semester with an outdoor school in the Amazon basin. It was the most rigorous three months I have ever experienced, with the oppressive heat, thick brush, tropical storms, swarms of bugs, and lack of ever being inside, with air conditioner (or at least a chair with some back support!). Yet, it was also the three months with the lowest anxiety I have ever experienced. The tasks felt natural, and the goal was simple- just to live day to day, as compared to the many little stressors of daily life and school we must constantly juggle.
In Japan, they have already performed a study on people who took part in ‘Shinrin-yoku,’ which means ‘forest bathing,’ or soaking up the forest atmosphere. These people exhibited a significant decrease in levels of cortisol, the hormone our bodies produce when we are stressed. In this way, it is possible that nature could be a form of preventative medicine, altering our body chemistry in subtle ways that can result in an overall better wellbeing.
So, 'chellers, I challenge you: this week, take a moment to absorb your surroundings and breathe in the view. It never hurts to give yourself a five-minute break to just be - we don't necessarily have to ‘forest bathe’ to get the benefits!