Natural environments are good for our mental health and well-being

Published on Thursday, 9 November 2017 12:25 - Written by

PATRICE DUNAGIN, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service

Many of us remember being told to “Go outside and play.” Once we got outside, it was difficult to get us back in the house. There was always something fun and engaging to do outside.

Times have changed, and today children spend less time playing outdoors than any past generation. Recent reports show that children ages 6 through 11 spend an average of 28 hours per week watching television. The average amount of time children spent using mobile devices tripled between 2011 and 2013. This includes educational screen time at school as well as out of school. Children now spend more than 7 1/2 hours a day in front of a screen (e.g., TV, video games, computer)

Higher obesity rates are linked to the current sedentary and nature-deprived lives of children. Obesity has short-term and long-term consequences for overall health and well-being. It is closely linked to an increased risk for chronic diseases, as well as depression, stress and anxiety. If the sedentary, indoor, screen-focused lifestyles of children today are not changed, there is likely to be a high cost to their health.

Natural environments have positive impacts on people’s mental health and well-being. Studies consistently show that natural settings link to much stronger developmental benefits for children (when compared with developed, urban settings).

According to research, children who play outdoors regularly:

- Have more active imaginations and play more creatively.

- Have lower stress levels and higher problem-solving skills.

- Have enhanced self-control and responsibility, as well as reduced disruptive behavior.

- Have enhanced self-esteem and self-confidence.

- Have greater respect for themselves and others, as well as increased interpersonal, negotiation and listening skills.

Many people see the word stress and automatically think it is a bad thing. Stress can be positive or negative. Moving to a new home, welcoming a new baby into the family or having a parent get a new job are all events that cause positive stress, whereas forgetting ones’ homework on the bus, a parent losing a job or a loved one dying are all events that cause negative stress. This is because stress is caused by any change in a person’s mental or physical environment; something is different than the norm. Both positive and negative stress impact our bodies. Studies show that different environments can increase or decrease stress. Therefore, what a person sees, hears, smells, etc. changes not only their mood but also their blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and immune system functioning.

Natural environments have been shown to heal. Whether in real life or pictures, natural settings have been shown to reduce anger, fear and stress, as well as increase pleasant feelings. A reduction in blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and stress hormones are all reactions of the body to experiencing a natural environment.

Nature also helps people cope with pain. Trees, plants, water and other elements of the natural environment are captivating and interesting to humans, so being in the presence of natural elements distracts people from pain. For this same reason, nature increases our ability to focus and be attentive. Natural environments serve as a break for people’s minds, refreshing them to continue tasks again later. This is particularly helpful for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Time spent in nature connects people to one another and society. Research has shown that when people view nature scenes, the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love activate, but when they view urban scenes, the parts of the brain associated with fear and anxiety activate. Nature rouses feelings of connectedness with each other and the world around us.

For more information contact Patrice Dunagin, Smith County FCH agent for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, at 903-590-2980.