How time in nature can aid depression and anxiety recovery
Anxiety and depression are increasingly common mental health problems. In fact, as Anxiety UK reports, there were 8.2 million cases of anxiety disorder in 2013, and according to the 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study, anxiety is one of the most predominant mental health problems worldwide.
Depressive disorders are also common. Around the world, more than 264 million people of all different age groups suffer from depression and according to a global report by the World Health Organisation, in just ten years, cases have increased by more than 18%.
But what is the best treatment for depression and anxiety? Unfortunately, there’s no catch-all recovery journey for either and the best techniques and treatments will depend entirely on the individual. But one thing that is clear, however, is that time spent in nature can massively help with mental wellbeing, thus aiding depression and anxiety recovery.
But how exactly can it help? And how can you best immerse yourself in nature? Read on for our guide.
What is depression?
“Depression is more than just sadness,” notes Marina Neumann, MBA program and guest relations manager here at New Life Portugal wellness retreat. “People with depression may experience a lack of interest and pleasure in daily activities, significant weight loss or gain, insomnia or excessive sleeping, lack of energy, inability to concentrate, feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt and recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.”
It’s the most common mental disorder and fortunately, it is treatable. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a combination of therapy and antidepressant medication can help ensure recovery.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety, on the other hand, is the natural human response triggered whenever we feel threatened.
“Anxiety is an emotion characterised by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure,” Marina describes. “It’s an emotional state of apprehension, an expectation that something bad is going to happen.”
It isn’t the same as fear though. “While fear has a definite object, anxiety is a diffuse emotion, directed towards the future. In the state of anxiety, the mind creates various negative thoughts and fantasizes various fearful scenes, often accompanied by uncomfortable physical reactions.”
Some of the common signs of anxiety include intrusive thoughts and concerns, changing your behaviour to avoid certain triggering situations as well as physical symptoms. The APA flags sweating, trembling, dizziness or a rapid heartbeat as common symptoms of anxiety.
What are the benefits of nature for recovery?
There’s a reason why stepping foot into a luscious park or looking out over open fields can make your shoulders drop and brow unfurl. “There is no better place to live in a mindful state than nature,” Marina asserts. “It is a constant invitation for our senses and the present moment.”
In recent years, there has been a flurry of research into the benefits of nature not only on general mental health and wellbeing, but also on the recovery process of anyone experiencing anxiety and/or depression. “A growing body of research lends strong empirical support for the counselling profession to embrace nature-based approaches,” Marina concludes. “An overwhelming amount of evidence suggests that nature is at least as powerful an intervention as anything counselling professionals currently use to enhance client and community wellness.” Below we’ve listed some of the key benefits.
It reduces your risk of anxiety disorders and depression
Marina points towards a study exploring the influence of nature on depression (Pretty et al., 2007), stating, “It was observed that 71% of those who participated in a daily walk around a public park containing woodlands, grasslands, and lakes experienced significantly less depression than those who walked inside a shopping centre.” The same article also notes, “the annual prevalence of disease clusters, including anxiety disorders and depression, were found to be significantly lower for people living near green space.” Additionally, the authors have even suggested that a daily walk outside could have a similar effect as antidepressant drugs when it comes to treating mild to moderate depression.
Furthemore, a 2015 Stanford study examined the brains of two groups of participants: one group walked for 90 minutes in a grassland area lined with trees and shrubs, and the other group walked along a high-traffic road. Measuring heart and respiration rates, as well as looking at brain scans and participant questionnaires, the study concluded that the nature walkers had reduced activity in the area of the brain associated with rumination, something that is frequently triggered by depression.
It can help you manage your symptoms
A 2013 article published in the International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, suggests that combining nature with counselling could reduce the symptomatology of those diagnosed with depression. “Nature-based approaches, while perhaps not supplanting psychopharmacological regimens, may nonetheless offer clients empowering ways to manage their conditions,” the article posits.
The sounds can lower stress levels
According to Doctor Weil, the sounds of nature – from bird song to rustling leaves – are naturally healing. “Sound and silence have a direct, powerful influence on emotions,” he writes. “We evolved with the sounds of nature, and the relative lack of them in our artificial environments of today may be yet another cause of emotional malaise.”
Marina also flags a recent article published in April 2021 which examined evidence of the health benefits of natural soundscapes and quantifies the prevalence of restorative acoustic environments. “The results affirm that natural sounds improve health, increase positive affect, and lower stress and annoyance. Raising awareness of natural soundscapes provides opportunities to enhance visitor health outcomes,” the authors summarise.
It can reduce negative emotions
According to research on nature and health published in the Annual Review of Public Health, time spent in nature can help curb unwanted or negative emotions such as anger, fatigue, anxiety and sadness, and it can also increase the feelings of energy.
It can help you put things into perspective
Witnessing the grand beauty of nature can remind you of your place and role in the larger ecosystem of the word. By stimulating your sense of awe and amazement, it can shift your perspective and make you feel that your own worries and anxieties – however valid – aren’t as significant as you might have once thought, helping to relieve some of the emotional load.
It can boost your general health
When experiencing anxiety or depression, alongside guided forms of therapy, taking care of your overall health is paramount. According to a recent study, it can even help lower risk factors associated with mortality. The study called The Preventable Causes of Death in the United States surmised that the mortality effects of risk factors including high blood glucose, high low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, high blood pressure, overweight–obesity, physical inactivity, alcohol use, and tobacco smoking could be somewhat mitigated by certain positive lifestyle choices, including spending more time in nature.
How can you immerse yourself in nature?
Embracing the power of nature no matter where you are in your wellness journey is pretty simple. Here’s our advice for immersing yourself in The Great Outdoors below:
- Seek out greenery. Even if you live in a built-up urban area, hunt out the green spaces, however small, and make a conscious effort to spend time in them wherever possible.
- Go for a walk. A simple daily walk in nature, listening to all its sounds can make changes in our brain and relax the mind.
- Embrace your senses. “One simple way for a person in recovery to immerse themselves in nature is to go outside, sit quietly and open up to all your senses,” Marina recommends. “Feeling the air touching your skin, the smells, seeing colours and details around you, watching the clouds moving. Opening up to the sounds of birds, creeks or leaves dancing in the trees.”
- Stretch yourself. “For example, walking faster or longer one day trains our brain to understand that we can endure and grow. Small changes every day really add up over time,” Marina notes
- Book a wellness retreat. “The wellbeing retreat offered by NLP in our four pathways, is a well-supported way to help people in recovery to heal and immerse themselves in nature,” she adds.
Nature therapy at New Life Portugal
We’ve ensured that time spent in nature is at the heart of all programs here at New Life Portugal wellness retreat.
“It all starts with our choice of location, which facilitates the contact of our guests with nature. Our centre is located in the Serra Da Estrela Natural Park, a UNESCO Global Geoparks site and Portugal’s oldest and largest conservation area,” Marina explains. With scenic mountainscapes and diverse flora, the scenery is breathtaking.
“The healing power of nature is deeply embedded into your wellness experience with us,” Marins continues. “Depending on which of our four paths you choose, you can participate in mindful walks, forest bathing, group excursions, expeditions, and much more.”
NLP wellness retreat embraces the outdoors wherever possible, offering a large range of activities at our pools or beside our pond, where a deck proves to be the perfect location for exercise and meditation. “Furthermore, our buildings are designed to privilege the amazing outside view like our meditation and yoga hall, which is all glazed,” Marina notes.
For more information about New Life Portugal, our four pathways and the nature-based wellness retreat experience, click here.