The fast pace of city living can be exciting, but it also significantly adds to our stress. Many people who are permanent urban-dwellers struggle to maintain a brain state that is positively focused, calm, and free from anxiety and depression. But there's hope for city-slickers, and it's as easy as emphasizing what we all already know is a healthy habit: spend more time in nature.
The Lise Meitner Group for Environmental Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development has found that being in nature is the key to better calm and control. Its recent study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature, has highlighted how living in urban and natural environments can affect our brains. This offers much hope for our mental well-being.
The study looks at the activity of the amygdala, the central brain region that is specifically associated with processing stress. The amygdala has been shown to be less activated in people who live in rural areas compared with those in cities, which suggests that nature is really good for us and our mental health. However, the researchers were still unsure whether nature actually caused the brain effects, or whether the particular individuals chose to live in rural or urban areas.
To deal with this dilemma, they studied the brain stress activity and processing in 63 healthy volunteers, before and after a walk in a forest, and before and after a walk in a busy Berlin street. During the walk in both environments, participants were equipped with a wristband that measured electrodermal activity (EDA), heart rate variability (HRV), and heart rate as the common signs of stress in the body. Those taking part in the study went on the walk alone and were not allowed to visit shops or use their mobile phones, so there were no distractions for both the city walkers and the forest walkers. They were given a packed lunch to carry which they could eat at their leisure during the walk.
The results clearly showed reduced amygdala activity in the brains of the volunteers who walked in the forest. For those who walked in the city, the brain activity remained the same—so no additional stress was caused—but it didn't go down. This was confirmation for the researchers that nature is helpful to the parts of our brains that process stress.
Although we have known for some time that being in nature is beneficial, this is the first study that has actually proved the causal link. The research has positively shown that even a short time in the natural outdoors decreases the stress activity in our brains, making it likely that walking on the beach or in a forest could even protect us against developing mental health problems in the future and from the negative effects of living in a city.
“[Our] results demonstrate that exposure to nature for one hour decreases amygdala activity and can have salutogenic effects on brain regions related to stress,” the researchers confirmed at the end of their study. “This suggests that going for a walk in nature may buffer detrimental effects of urban environment on stress-related brain regions, and in turn potentially act as a preventive measure against developing a mental disorder.”
So, put on your walking shoes and sunscreen and leave your phone at home for an hour or two. Being in a forest, on a mountain, or on the beach is not only good for our bodies, but it puts our mental health in better shape, too.
The Lise Meitner Group for Environmental Neuroscience has found that spending time in nature helps to reduce stress for better mental health.
The researchers studied the brain stress activity and processing in 63 healthy volunteers, before and after a walk in a forest and in a busy Berlin shopping street. Those who walked in the woods had reduced stress.