Healing in the great outdoors: Nature’s impact on mental wellness

It is estimated that the average adult makes about 35,000 remotely conscious decisions each day. This means that from the moment we wake up, until we go to bed, our lives are filled with tasks and responsibilities. Making the correct choices can ensure you are looking after your mental health, which should not be a luxury, but a necessity. Your mental health significantly impacts your overall well-being and quality of life, therefore maintaining good mental health is crucial. It can help build and maintain healthier relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. It also enhances your ability to communicate, empathise and connect with others. Taking proactive steps to care for your mental health is paramount in reducing the risk of mental disorders and maintaining overall well-being, Just as we prioritise physical health to prevent illness, dedicating time and effort to mental health is equally important.

“Spending time in nature can act as a balm for our busy brains”. An increasing body of evidence suggests that one of the best ways to improve your mental well-being is by simply spending more time outdoors. From a stroll through a city park to a day hiking in the wilderness, being out in nature has been linked to many benefits such as lowering stress, improving mood and sleep, reducing the risk of psychiatric disorders and more.

Sunlight and social walks: vitamin D’s role in mental well-being

By being outdoors you will be able to absorb some sunlight, and 15 to 30 minutes of it is crucial. Sunlight is the most accessible anti-depressant you can find. Sunlight is an excellent source of vitamin D which is crucial for a healthy brain. A vitamin D deficiency has been linked with the development of mood disorders. It has also been shown to help regulate mood and reduce depression.

A study by D’Souza et al (2020) identified low vitamin D levels as a risk factor

In fact, a study by D’Souza et al (2020) identified low vitamin D levels as a risk factor for worse symptom severity of anxiety and depression. Positively, the act of outdoor engagement can extend beyond the solitary experience to encompass a social dimension. Grabbing a friend or loved one on your walk is a wonderful way to feel more motivated and enhance both your physical and emotional well-being.

It also is a great opportunity to share thoughts, feelings, and nurture an important bond. Amidst the rustling leaves or city bustle, our minds can unwind, and the stresses of life can feel lighter. The simple act of walking with a friend can be a reminder of the importance of not only movement, but meaningful relationships. This is something you can incorporate with therapy and counselling too as some clinicians provide ‘walk and talk therapy’.

Walk and talk therapy, an innovative approach to traditional counselling, offers a multitude of benefits for individuals seeking mental health support. The dynamic nature of this therapeutic modality, conducted outdoors while walking, provides a unique environment that fosters openness and free expression. It also is a great way to ensure that you are out in nature at least once a week.

Green spaces for growing minds

The benefits of nature extend beyond us as adults and individuals and are particularly impactful for young people. It is no secret that the prevalence of excessive screen time among young people has become a growing concern in recent years. With the rapid increase of smartphones, tablets, computers, and more, children are spending more hours than ever engaged with screens. With this, parents and caregivers need to ensure boundaries and encourage screen-free activities, specifically outdoors.

A study by Engemann, K., et al (2019) 

A study by Engemann, K., et al (2019) assessed people’s exposure to green space from birth to age 10 using satellite data, which they compared with longitudinal data on individual mental health outcomes.

More than 900,000 residents were examined, and results showed that the risk for developing mental illness for those who lived with the lowest level of green space during childhood was up to 55% higher than those who grew up with abundant green space. The reduced risk of psychiatric disorders later in life included depression, mood disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and substance use disorder. Furthermore, instilling a connection with nature at a young age promotes environmental stewardship, instilling a sense of responsibility and appreciation for the planet. In essence, the benefits of nature transcend individual well-being and play a pivotal role in shaping a resilient, socially adept, and environmentally conscious generation.

In the midst of urban living, it is completely normal but also essential to pause and reflect on how we can deliberately infuse nature into our daily routines. Asking ourselves this question prompts a thoughtful exploration of our surroundings and available resources. One practical way to incorporate nature into our daily lives, is to designate time for outdoor activities, whether it’s a brief morning stroll, a lunchtime picnic in a nearby park, or an evening walk to unwind.

You also can explore outdoor exercise classes in local parks, as many cities offer yoga and other fitness classes in outdoor settings, which help provide both physical activity and a connection to nature. Challenge yourself to explore new natural spots in your city and set aside time and goals in your week to visit different parks, gardens, nature spots.

Becoming mindful of the nature around us has many benefits, not only to nature itself but to us humans. Mindfulness, rooted in the practice of being fully present in the moment, takes on a transformative quality when immersed in the sights, sounds, and sensations of nature. Whether it’s mindful walking, practicing meditation beside a flowing stream, or simply observing, these practices invite a profound sense of awareness and tranquillity.

It is easy to become accustomed to walking past nature in an urban environment without a second thought and not even noticing its presence. From rooftop gardens, balcony plants, parks, football pitches, planted trees amongst houses and buildings, or even planted up roundabouts, there is nature everywhere. Even in the most densely populated towns and cities; look out for it, pay attention, appreciate it, and reap its benefits.

Dounia Crivelli, Psychologist at Us Therapy









Written & Reviewed by Dounia Crivelli, Associate Psychologist in 2024