Improve mental health with exposure to trees and nature

If stress about the upcoming holiday season is beginning to build, put on your coat and hat, get yourself outside and walk around under your neighborhood trees. Exposure to nature reduces depression, anxiety and stress! Time spent in nature provides a wealth of mental health benefits.

Nearly 16 million adults experience major depression each year in the U.S, 40 million are affected by anxiety disorders, and 80% of us are afflicted by stress. Many of us lead busy, highly scheduled lives and problems with relationships and finances are not uncommon. If you live in the city, those numbers are even higher. Urban dwellers have a 20% higher risk for developing anxiety disorders, 40% for mood disorders and double for schizophrenia.

Looking for a simple solution? Researchers have repeatedly found evidence for improved mental health with exposure to nature. Trees and green environments support relaxation and reduce stress. This improves overall metal health, mood and life function. There’s an economic advantage too, reduced treatment costs and improved worker productivity. It is a wonderful gift from mother nature!

Man on bike in orchardEven in the mid-1800’s Frederick Law Olmstead, renowned landscape architect, wrote extensively about the mental health benefits of nature. He declared that time in nature provided “relief from ordinary cares, change of air, and change of habits” additionally it “increases the subsequent capacity for happiness and the means of securing happiness.”

Research is now delving into questions about the ‘dose’ of nature needed to achieve improved mental health. Results say the greener the space, the better. A 1% increase in usable or total green space has been shown to result in a 4% lower rate of anxiety and mood disorder treatments. Distance is a factor as well. There is a 3% lower treatment rate for every 100 meters closer you are to the nearest usable green space.

The University of Texas- EL Paso took this idea to heart and dramatically expanded their campus’s landscaping and useable green space. They went from grey to green in order to combat the stress associated with academics. New trees were planted, and the campus was beautifully redesigned specifically to improve mental relaxation using Attention Restoration Theory (a cognitive functioning theory that explains how natural settings reduce stimuli and allow the brain to rest).

So, bundle up, get outside and enjoy the relaxation and restorative effects of trees and nature. For more information and links to published research, visit human health in the Vibrant Cities Lab, Urban Nature for Human Health and Well-being, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, and Nature’s Riches: The Health and Financial Benefits of Nearby Nature.

Article written by: Olivia Witthun, WI DNR Urban Forestry Coordinator, 414-750-8744, Olivia.Witthun@wisconsin.gov

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