If you’ve ever walked through a forest or past a lake, you know the phenomenon: After being in nature for a while, your stress dwindles, you feel more centered, and your heart rate slows. That mood-boosting experience isn’t just in your head; the mental health benefits of nature are well-documented by dozens of studies. “A significant body of research shows that time spent intentionally in nature for therapeutic effect—known as forest bathing—is linked to lower stress, restored attention, a balanced nervous system, decreased levels of anxiety and depression, and a strengthened immune system,” says Britt Wray, PhD, the author of Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis.
“Our mental health affects the quality of our environment, and the quality of our environment affects our mental health,” Dr. Wray continues. Our shared environment plays a huge role in our overall physical and emotional well-being—and in our era of climate emergency, understanding the relationship between nature and mental health is more important than ever. While you may not have access to a sprawling forest or a stunning ocean, Dr. Wray notes that the natural world takes many forms. “Perhaps one’s local nature is a big grassy meadow, or a mountain ridge, or a swamp,” she says. “What’s important is that we can step outside of the human-built world and feel ourselves as being part of nature by connecting with the ecosystems around us. This can help us know and feel that we are part of a much bigger and interconnected web of life.”
Understanding that dynamic, Dr. Wray says, can help people improve their mental health while simultaneously protecting our planet. “If we practice looking for this connection, and respecting it, rather than trying to dominate nature or escape from its forces, we create a much healthier way of relating to each other, other species, and wildlands that are increasingly threatened,” she says. “If we did this en masse, it would decrease issues like climate change and the biodiversity crisis while also filling us with a sense of belonging and even awe.”
Paradoxically, to deeply connect with nature is to also understand how endangered our ecosystems and climate have become. As the climate emergency worsens, a healthy appreciation for nature can mutate into intense anxiety, grief, and depression over what’s happening to our planet. “Anyone who understands that our health is tied up with the health of our environment can be susceptible to the growing phenomenon of eco-anxiety, which is emotional distress about the degradation of the climate and wider environment,” Dr. Wray says.
That feeling takes a toll on mental health on its own, but it’s especially difficult to handle when many people are ignoring the crisis at hand. Dr. Wray notes that eco-anxiety is not a disorder, nor a suggestion that something is wrong with you; in fact, feeling it is a sign of caring. “It can be healthy to feel this because it shows that we care about important things we rely on to live healthy lives that are under threat. But it can also become overwhelming and very hard to cope with, taking a real toll on our mental health.”
One way to cope with eco-anxiety, Dr. Wray says, is to turn anxiety into activism. “If we took environmental action at collective scale, from top government level all the way down to our local communities, this would inherently protect mental health by lessening this growing distress about negative environmental change,” she says. Pushing for change collectively, she notes, is the way for people to nurture their mental health in a sustainable manner. Trying to save the planet through individual actions alone is an impossible task, but joining a community group to plant trees in neighborhoods that don’t have them? That creates lasting change and connections with like-minded people—which, in turn, can help you find your part in the ecosystem—literally and figuratively. “There are so many emotional, psychological and health benefits that can come from connecting with nature,” Dr. Wray says. “We aren’t separate from it, after all. Many of us just act like we are.”
Photo by Artem Kovalev on Unsplash