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The Mental Health Benefits of Nature and the Great  Outdoors

The effect nature has on personal well-being is impossible to ignore. Whether it’s a walk around the park, a hike with loved ones or an adventure half way around the world, everyone has experienced the incredible boost received after a one-on-one with the great outdoors. Read on to find out the positive benefits nature has on our mental health.

While it may seem obvious that getting outside every now and then is pretty necessary, there are now scientific studies and proof that supports the psychological benefits of nature, and research is being made into how it can be used as a form of therapy for those suffering with a mental illness or trauma.

Mental Stimulation

Approximately 1 in 4 people will suffer from a mental health problem at some point each year, and as modern life puts more pressure on people daily, that figure is not decreasing. More people than ever live in the concrete cage of cities, with little or no access to nature, and statistics prove that living in a location with more natural open spaces is better for our health.

Flickr | Ilias VarelasResearch published in the Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine journal has shown that being in nature reduces the cortisol levels in our brain (our stress hormone) and can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. In a world surrounded by glaring screens, time spent outdoors awakens our senses, such as sight and smell, and shifts our attention. It has also been scientifically proven to improve focus and signal creativity - as our world becomes increasingly claustrophobic, the outdoors offers open spaces and freedom to think and reflect.

Flickr | Jim SmithBeing outdoors also encourages exercise. Swimming in a lake, going for a hike, or even just cycling instead of getting the bus gets those endorphins flowing, which we all know is a good thing! It may sound painfully obvious, but the outdoors also comes with fresh air, and sunlight (sometimes), and the importance of both can often be lost in modern day life.

Making an Impact, and Having a Purpose

Of course it’s not realistic to suggest that you should swim in a lake everyday – we all have things to do. But bringing the outdoors and nature to you is something small, but significant that will make an impact on your daily life. Looking after an immediate outdoor space, such as your garden or a local area, has a tremendous positive effect on your personal well-being. Caring for something and seeing it grow is therapeutic and rewarding, and something as small as household plants has been proven to aid our mental health enormously. Whilst we are no stranger to the psychological benefits of having animals in our lives, encouraging wildlife such as bees, insects and birds to your garden will not only help your well-being, but also cares for their habitat as well.

Flickr | Marek MinárikFurther still, you could volunteer abroad on a wildlife or environmental conservation project, where you can get outdoors and make a real difference. These projects promote interaction with both nature and people, and the benefits for our mental health are endless with studies showing that acts of kindness, both large and small, are associated with positive mental well-being. Learning is a key factor in these projects, which stimulates our minds and is crucial to a healthy mind-set. Frontier has a wide range of nature conservation projects, which you can check out here.

So, can nature be prescribed?

Well, nearly! There has been a huge shift in attitude towards how mental health is approached in the last decade, and according to experts, it is not implausible that doctors may be giving prescriptions in the form of outdoor activity in the not so distant future. Whilst the field of ecotherapy may not be new, it is quickly becoming a therapy method of choice for people suffering with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, and is also being used as therapeutic intervention for dementia sufferers.

There are increasing numbers of Green Care programmes all over the country, which arrange group tasks such as caring for an allotment, going on hikes or cleaning up the local area, just to name a few. One example is “MindFood”, an allotment site in west London, which runs courses on how to manage mental wellbeing through growing food. The sessions allow people with common mental health problems to work together, improve the garden, learn new skills and benefit from some gentle exercise.

Whilst ecotherapy is gaining popularity as a form of therapy, Green spaces are under threat from development and building, and support is needed to promote the importance of nature in a healthy well-being!  There are already therapeutic "healing forests" in South Korea (with 34 more planned by 2017) and, in Sweden, virtual nature spaces are beginning to be prescribed for stressed-out workers, so watch this space.

By Fran Collis - Online Journalism Intern

Frontier runs conservationdevelopmentteaching and adventure travel projects in over 50 countries worldwide - so join us and explore the world!

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