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The Positive Effects of Nature

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Recent studies have pointed to a link between mental health and exposure to nature.

Jobs provide the money needed to purchase food, clothing, shelter and other necessities. The need for employment many times drives people to move away from their hometown in search of work.

Globally there has been a shift in population densities. The World Health Organization reports that in 1950 only 29 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas (WHO, 2014). In 2015, 54 percent of the world’s population now lives in urban areas and the number is expected to increase to 60 percent by 2030 (WHO, 2014).

With the global population moving toward urban areas, there is also a rise in the prevalence of poor mental health. According to the World Health Organization, by 2020 mental health disorders will account for 15 percent of the global burden of disease (Funk et al, 2003). Anxiety disorders are consistently the most prevalent kind of mental disorder in the developed world (Kessler et al, 2009).

The United States follows these trends. The 2010 US Census reports that almost 84 percent of the nation’s population lives in metropolitan areas and that these areas grew at almost twice the rate of the national growth rate between the years 2000 and 2010 (Mackun et al, 2011). The United States also has growing rates of poor mental health, following the global trend.

What if there was something relatively simple that could ease the burden of anxiety and poor mental health?

Because the growing trend to move to urban areas places greater demand for land to develop housing and retail, some areas may be left with little nature to be seen.

Two separate studies published last year point to the positive effects exposure to nature has on mental health. Researcher Cox and his team reported that the availability and quality of green spaces in a neighborhood are associated with greater well-being and lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress of those living in that neighborhood (Cox et al, 2017). Plants have been proven to reduce stress and promote mental energy. Bird watching, and hearing bird songs has similar effects. Another researcher, Vujcic, and his team support Cox’s findings, reporting that nature has restorative powers that help reduce negative feelings and promote positive emotions (Vujcic et al, 2017).

Intentionally going out into nature for the pleasure of being in nature has many benefits (Cox et al 2017). Unfortunately, not everyone lives close to large green areas, which allow for this kind of interaction. Still, seeing nature such as trees, ground cover and birds while going about daily business and travel is enough to benefit from nature; seeing nature from a window is also included in this list (Cox et al 2017).

Vujcic’s research teaml also found that participating in gardening activities also improved mood, self-esteem and cortisol levels (Vujcic et al, 2017).

With the trend to move to urban areas, the exposure to nature can be limited, but there are steps that can be done individually and as a community to increase the natural environment in the city. Individually, people can plant a flower garden, place potted plants on the porch step or balcony. It can be adapted to any type of living situation. Communities can plant trees along the street, in a park or other places around town (Cox et al, 2017). They can also provide more nesting areas for local birds as well as green walls or roofs (Cox et al 2017). Areas with limited green areas could consider adding green areas to help promote positive mental health.

Sometimes all it takes is a little green to make someone feel better. So, go ahead and take some time to stop and smell the flowers.

References:

Cox, D. T. C., Shanahan, D. F., Hudson, H. L., Plummer, K. E., Siriwardena, G. M., Fuller, R. A., . . . Gaston, K. J. (2017). Doses of neighborhood nature: The benefits for mental health of living with nature. BioScience, 67(2),147. doi:10.1093/biosci/biw173

Funk, M., Saraceno, B., Pathare, S., & Flisher, A. (2003). The mental health context. Geneva: World Health Organization.

Kessler, R. C., Aguilar-Gaxiola, S., Alonso, J., Chatterji, S., Lee, S., Ormel, J., … Wang, P. S. (2009). The global burden of mental disorders: An update from the WHO World Mental Health (WMH) Surveys. Epidemiologia E Psichiatria Sociale, 18(1), 23–33.

Mackun, P., & Wilson, S. (2011). Population distribution and change:
2000 to 2010. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-01.pdf

Vujcic, M., Tomicevic-Debljevic, J., Grbic, M., Lecic-Tosevski, D., Vukovic, O., & Toskovic, O. (2017). Nature based solution for improving mental health and well-being in urban areas. Environmental Research, 158, 385-392. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2017.06.030

WHO | urban population growth. (2014). Retrieved from http://www.who.int/gho/urban_health/situation_trends/urban_population_growth/en/

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