From forest bathing to urban parks: How nature helps protect our well-being during a pandemic

St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin, cour­tesy of

Liv­ing through the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic has had a severe impact on people’s men­tal health and well-being. Restrict­ed move­ment, loss, and iso­la­tion have led to increas­es in depres­sion, anx­i­ety dis­or­ders, stress, sleep dis­or­ders, and more. The effects have been even harsh­er for teens.

How can we help pro­tect our well-being dur­ing this par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult time? Though a pub­lic health response is def­i­nite­ly called for, one way we might try to help our­selves this year is spend­ing more time immersed in nature. In the last decade or so, research on the health ben­e­fits of nature expe­ri­ences has explod­ed, con­firm­ing what many peo­ple know intuitively—that green spaces are good for men­tal well-being, whether you’re walk­ing out­doors, look­ing at beau­ti­ful views, or even just see­ing videos of nature.

This is def­i­nite­ly the case for me. Even before the pan­dem­ic hit, I’d real­ized that I was not spend­ing as much time out­doors as I want­ed to—even though I knew from per­son­al expe­ri­ence and sci­ence that being in nature made me hap­pi­er, kinder, and more cre­ative. So, in Jan­u­ary 2020, I began tak­ing dai­ly walks in the hills near my home, enjoy­ing the awe-inspir­ing beau­ty while giv­ing my mind a rest and my body a work­out. Once lock­downs began, I con­tin­ued my reg­u­lar walks and found it helped me feel less stressed, in a bet­ter mood, and more productive.

Appar­ent­ly, I’m not alone. Accord­ing to new research, nature has helped many peo­ple with their men­tal health dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. Here are some of the ways nature expe­ri­ences might ben­e­fit us dur­ing this fraught time.

Nature reduces stress

Per­haps the most robust find­ing on the psy­cho­log­i­cal ben­e­fits of nature is that being in green spaces reduces our stress. Exper­i­ments have shown that peo­ple who walk in a nature area—a for­est or park, for example—feel less stress than those who walk in an urban set­ting, even when the exer­cise they’re get­ting is the same. In fact, some coun­tries have intro­duced the con­cept of “for­est bathing” to fight the effects of mod­ern urban living.

Dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, many peo­ple have had to restrict their move­ment, mak­ing it hard­er to get out­side. But those who could get out def­i­nite­ly ben­e­fit­ted from it, while those who couldn’t still fared bet­ter from just hav­ing views of nature.

One study looked at how much time peo­ple spent out­doors before and dur­ing the pan­dem­ic and whether they increased or decreased their out­door time. The researchers found that peo­ple who had main­tained or increased their time out­side were less stressed and had greater psy­cho­log­i­cal well-being than those who’d decreased their time.

Anoth­er study con­duct­ed dur­ing Israel‘s lock­down found that spend­ing time outside—or even just hav­ing a nat­ur­al view from one’s window—reduced stress and increased hap­pi­ness. This was true even if peo­ple had suf­fered eco­nom­i­cal­ly because of the pandemic—another stres­sor on top of an already stress­ful situation.

A recent study sug­gests that one rea­son for this might be that being in a green space affects us phys­i­o­log­i­cal­ly, espe­cial­ly places rich in plant life that con­tain bod­ies of water or uneven ter­rain. Peo­ple who were mon­i­tored while pass­ing through green spaces were shown to sweat less, breathe bet­ter, and have greater heart rate vari­abil­i­ty (all signs of low­er stress or bet­ter recov­ery from stress).

These stud­ies and oth­ers point to the con­clu­sion that nature expe­ri­ences are good for man­ag­ing stress.

Nature helps us feel restored

Since the pan­dem­ic began, many of us are spend­ing a lot more time online in Zoom meet­ings or Zoom class­es. While it’s great to have the tech­nol­o­gy avail­able for con­nect­ing with oth­ers and get­ting work done, it can be exhaust­ing to stare at a screen for so long and try to stay focused.

That’s why it can help to give our­selves an atten­tion break by get­ting out­doors. Recov­ery from infor­ma­tion over­load (online or oth­er­wise), some­times called atten­tion restora­tion, is one of the main ways that being in a nat­ur­al or green set­ting gives our minds a rest.

After tak­ing that break, our brains may be sharp­er. For exam­ple, expo­sure to nature helps us per­form bet­ter on tasks requir­ing atten­tion and can even lead to greater cre­ative prob­lem-solv­ing. Even a sim­u­lat­ed nature expe­ri­ence helped peo­ple recov­er from over­stim­u­la­tion and do bet­ter at cog­ni­tive tests.

Why is nature restora­tive? No one knows for sure. But a recent neu­ro­science study com­pared the brain activ­i­ty of peo­ple spend­ing time in a wood­ed gar­den and a traf­fic island and found that being in the nat­ur­al set­ting allowed their brains to syn­chro­nize alpha and theta brain waves (relat­ed to calm and day­dream­ing, respec­tive­ly). This may explain why nature induces a kind of relaxed atten­tion that pro­vides peo­ple with a respite from overstimulation—something we could all use these days!

Nature helps stave off depression, anxiety, and physical complaints

Nature may help us improve our psy­cho­log­i­cal health dur­ing COVID for oth­er rea­sons, too—by staving off depres­sion, anx­i­ety, and phys­i­cal com­plaints (like not get­ting enough sleep).

In a study in Spain and Por­tu­gal con­duct­ed between March and May 2020, peo­ple report­ed on how much access they had to green spaces like pri­vate yards, views of nature, and pub­lic parks, and on their stress lev­els, phys­i­cal com­plaints, and psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tress. After tak­ing into account how much COVID lock­downs had affect­ed people’s employ­ment, income, and hous­ing sit­u­a­tion, researchers found that peo­ple access­ing nature more had low­er psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tress and few­er phys­i­cal com­plaints than those with less access.

Sim­i­lar­ly, a study in Tokyo found that peo­ple who were locked down dur­ing the pan­dem­ic were less depressed, anx­ious, and lone­ly, and hap­pi­er and more sat­is­fied with their lives, if they spent time in green spaces (like parks) or had a view of green­ery from their window.

This may be par­tic­u­lar­ly rel­e­vant for groups most affect­ed by COVID isolation—including ado­les­cents. A recent study found that teens who spent more time out­doors dur­ing the pan­dem­ic fared bet­ter on many men­tal health indi­ca­tors than those who spent less time outdoors—especially if they lived in an urban community.

One rea­son nature might improve our men­tal health is that it helps us let go of end­less thought loops about what’s wrong with the world—what psy­chol­o­gists call “rumi­na­tion,” which is tied to depres­sion, anx­i­ety, and poor sleep. A recent study found that par­tic­i­pants who spent more time inter­act­ing with nature in some way—for exam­ple, walk­ing out­side, bik­ing, gar­den­ing, play­ing games or sports, or hang­ing out in a park—ruminated less, and in turn expe­ri­enced more pos­i­tive feel­ings and few­er neg­a­tive feelings.

That’s prob­a­bly why a recent review of sev­er­al exper­i­men­tal stud­ies found that nature-based recre­ation­al activities—like walk­ing in parks, hik­ing, raft­ing, or backpacking—have pos­i­tive effects on our men­tal health, includ­ing mak­ing us less depressed and anxious.

Nature makes us happier and more satisfied with life

If nature expe­ri­ences decrease stress, restore our deplet­ed brains, and reduce rumi­na­tion and oth­er symp­toms of psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tress, they should also make us hap­pi­er. Many past studies—including some of those men­tioned above—have found this to be true.

In one large study, researchers used smart­phones to col­lect data from more than 20,000 peo­ple in real time com­par­ing how they felt at dif­fer­ent points dur­ing their day and using GPS to deter­mine where they were. The researchers found that, over­all, peo­ple felt hap­pi­er when they were out­doors in green or nat­ur­al spaces com­pared to urban spaces, regard­less of the weath­er, activ­i­ty, or who was with them. Anoth­er study sur­veyed peo­ple liv­ing in Puget Sound, Wash­ing­ton, and found that they were more sat­is­fied with life if they engaged with nature more.

This may be good news for peo­ple who’ve been hit par­tic­u­lar­ly hard by the pandemic—including our essen­tial workers.

In a recent study, a group of 71 health care work­ers and police in Chi­na were ran­dom­ly assigned to watch short video clips of either nat­ur­al scenes or urban scenes every day for five days, report­ing their well-being over time. Those who watched the nature scenes felt more pos­i­tive feel­ings and few­er neg­a­tive feel­ings and greater well-being over­all than those watch­ing urban scenes.

In a review of many stud­ies, researchers found that peo­ple more con­nect­ed to nature (see­ing them­selves as part of nature and car­ing about the nat­ur­al world) tend­ed to have more pos­i­tive feel­ings, vital­i­ty, and life sat­is­fac­tion com­pared to those who were less connected.

All of this and more sug­gests that we can be hap­pi­er and health­i­er if we main­tain our con­nec­tion to nature some­how dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. Whether we gar­den, have a view of nature out our win­dow, vis­it near­by parks, or even just watch a nature video, we can help our­selves deal with the stress­es and strains of COVID iso­la­tion by giv­ing our­selves and our kids a dose of “Vit­a­min N.” Take it from me, you’ll be glad you did.

— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s book review edi­tor and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the mag­a­zine. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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