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5 Good and Bad Ways Nature Impacts Your Emotional Health

Do you know which natural environments are harmful versus beneficial?

More than 50% of people in the world live in urban areas. By 2050, that number will be 70%. This massive urbanization trend has been associated with rises in mental illness. Yet, while many of us are aware of the negative impact of noise and crowding on our emotional health, we tend to forget that nature impacts us too. Here are five recent findings that illustrate how powerfully nature can affect our emotions, our thinking, our brain, and our body.

1. Walking among trees reduces rumination and brooding: In this straightforward study, one group of participants experienced a 90-minute walk through nature while the other walked through an urban environment. People who walked in nature reported a significant drop in ruminative thoughts and even showed positive changes in brain areas associated with mental illness, while those walking in urban settings did not.

2. Nature accelerates our body’s recovery from stress: Researchers demonstrated that merely watching images of nature scenes, as opposed to urban settings, before becoming stressed, helped people’s physiological recovery and increased activation of their parasympathetic nervous system (which helps calm us down after we become activated, aroused, or stressed).

3. Desert landscapes lower our motivation to change bad habits: Apparently, not all nature is beneficial. A series of studies found that viewing or visualizing deserts (versus lush landscapes) actually reduced participants’ confidence in their ability to change negative habits. This happened because desert and arid landscapes were perceived as more depleting and stressful than landscapes with water, making people feel they had less 'juice in the tank' with which to regulate their behavior.

4. Lakes and trees improve attention when you’re tired: Participants in this study were fatigued, shown images of various environments, and then their attention was tested. People who watched images of lakes, trees, and mountains, performed significantly better than those who watched images of buildings or geometric shapes. Nature is thus considered a restorative environment for certain mental and cognitive functions.

5. Natural environments significantly improve mood: Participants in this study watched a frightening movie and then a video depicting natural or urban environments. Those who watched the nature scenes reported significant improvements in mood while those watching urban environments did not. Further, the more beautiful the participants perceived the natural environment to be, the more their mood improved.

To improve emotional health see Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts.

Copyright 2016 Guy Winch