How do outdoor spaces influence mental health?

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A volunteer uses plant shears to trim a bush along a trail

By Elizabeth Aldenderfer
Park Stewardship Trail Crew Intern

Not only can we see Mother Nature’s positive effects on our physical bodies, so too can she manifest positive changes within our minds. As an ode to Mental Health Awareness Week (October 6-12, 2019), and a continuation of discussions on mental health, here are some ways our mountainous, coastal, forested, and scrubby green spaces can lighten our moods.
 
1. Sight

For sighted people, this is the sense that takes the front seat. From sparkling mountainous vistas and rainbows of flowers to curious creatures, nature can be objectively beautiful. But did you know that even colors can affect our moods? The color green can help make exercise easier. Folks who walk, hike, or bike in green spaces can experience less mental and physical fatigue than those who observe red or gray on their outdoor adventures.
 
2. Sound

Some of us may use sounds like rain or animal sounds to get to sleep, and there is scientific reasoning behind this calming effect. Forest and bird sounds can decrease stress more quickly by targeting the sympathetic nervous system. On a social level, sounds from nature can make one feel less crowded and more open to social interaction (think Muir Woods in the summer).
 
3. Smell

Perhaps you experienced a scent that affected your mood, calmness, or alertness. The olfactory system is connected to how hungry and happy we are and plays a role in memories. For example, smelling lavender relaxes us by altering brain waves and affecting cognition.
 
What about something you can’t smell?
 
Enter, phytoncides. These tiny antimicrobial volatile organic compounds are pervasive in plant communities and are used by plants to fight decay or hungry herbivores. Humans breathe in the air containing the phytoncides and reap the benefits without a second thought. Some phytoncides are immediately antimicrobial, some bolster the immune system, and largely they all decrease stress and anxiety and increase relaxation.
 
4. Touch
 
Interacting with the outdoors through movement and play in natural areas proves a great way to increase both physical and mental fortitude. Not only does it improve motor skills, exploring green spaces boosts concentration and confidence.
 
5. Taste
 
Food is a huge component of how people interact with nature and microorganisms play a huge role in how our bodies function. Microbes and humans have developed a symbiotic relationship which exchanges signals between the gut and the brain: signals that help direct our hormones, immunity, and neurons. Continued exposure to the microbes can make stress more tolerable.
 
In short, any time outdoors, especially with loved ones, is time well spent for both mind and body. So get out there whenever you can and don’t forget the sunscreen!
 

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