Immersion in nature has mental health benefits

Updated: Jul 11, 2019

Connecting with nature may help boost your mood, bust your stress, and sharpen your thinking skills.

Photo: Biletskiy_Evgeniy/iStock

Many people swear by the restorative effects of getting away from the daily grind and out into nature for a while. And researchers have taken note, churning out hundreds of studies on the benefits of nature experiences. Together, these studies show that immersing yourself in nature can have positive effects on psychological well-being, stress management, and cognitive performance, according to a recent review article in Frontiers in Psychology.

The review authors, based at the Steno Diabetes Center Copenhagen in Denmark, focused on 133 controlled studies culled from scientific journals around the world. All the studies dealt with immersive nature experiences, defined as noncompetitive activities, whether active or sedentary, occurring in natural settings that are removed from a person’s everyday environment.

In plain English, that means activities done in natural environments for recreational or therapeutic purposes. Competitive sports were excluded. So were home- and work-based activities, such as home gardening or farming.

The Scandinavian concept of friluftsliv ("free-loofts-liv") refers to a way of life that values connecting with nature on a regular basis.

Optimizing mental well-being

Some of the studies looked at immersive nature activities done for fun by individuals without any notable health challenges. Examples of such activities included walks and seated relaxation in a natural setting. Among the findings:

  • Walking in nature increased self-reported positive feelings more than walking in an urban environment.

  • Nature walks often improved cognitive performance, creativity, and working memory more than urban walks,

  • Walks and seated relaxation done in natural settings often reduced physiological indicators of stress.

Managing illness and adversity

A second group of studies looked at immersive nature programs designed for those with mental and physical health conditions or other life challenges. For those with medical and mental health diagnoses, a dose of nature therapy was generally used as an add-on to (not a replacement for) other treatments.

Some programs focused on walking or sitting and relaxing in nature for short periods. Others involved longer-term outdoor adventures and primitive camping experiences. Among the findings:

  • Walks and seated relaxation done in natural settings increased self-reported psychological well-being in people with a variety of challenges. For example, in one program, people considered to be at high risk for suicide reported feeling less depressed and hopeless after hiking with a group in the mountains three times per week for a couple of months.

  • Walking or sitting in natural environments improved cognitive performance more than doing the same activities in other settings. For example, in one study, people with depression had greater improvements in short-term memory after walking in a park versus an urban setting.

  • Walking or otherwise spending time in nature reduced physiological indicators of stress in people with conditions such as high blood pressure, depression, and chronic pain.

Weaving nature into education

A third group of studies looked at immersive nature experiences within an educational context. Many studies focused on adventure education programs that lasted anywhere from four days to three months. Others involved briefer learning activities that took place in natural settings. Among the findings:

  • Adventure education programs lasting several days or longer increased self-esteem, self-confidence, self-concept, and resilience more than programs that weren’t nature-based.

  • Both short-term and long-term education activities that took place out in nature helped improve cooperation skills, such as responsibility, leadership, and helping one another.

Looking at the big picture

Individually, the quality of these studies was deemed low or occasionally moderate. Larger and better studies are still needed. Collectively, however, the existing studies offer compelling evidence that getting away from the demands of daily life and out into nature can have a positive impact on your psychological well-being.

Even studies that didn’t find unequivocally positive results generally found mixed or neutral results, not adverse effects. You’ve got nothing to lose, and potentially a lot to gain, by making a deliberate choice to spend time in nature.

About the author

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a freelance health and psychology writer.

Key references

Berman, M. G., Kross, E., Krpan, K. M., Askren, M. K., Burson, A., Deldin, P. J., . . . Jonides, J. (2012). Interacting with nature improves cognition and affect for individuals with depression. Journal of Affective Disorders, 140(3), 300-305. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2012.03.012

Mygind, L., Kjeldsted, E., Hartmeyer, R. D., Mygind, E., Bølling, M., & Bentsen, P. (2019). Immersive nature-experiences as health promotion interventions for healthy, vulnerable, and sick populations? A systematic review and appraisal of controlled studies. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00943

Sturm, J., Plöderl, M., Fartacek, C., Kralovec, K., Neunhäuserer, D., Niederseer, D., . . . Fartacek, R. (2012). Physical exercise through mountain hiking in high-risk suicide patients. A randomized crossover trial. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 126(6), 467-475. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0447.2012.01860.x