Spending time in nature only has major health benefits if you do this

Spending some tranquil time in nature, surrounded by greenery and unabated wildlife, has long been linked to improvements in mental health. It is, of course, an oversimplification of complex diseases like depression and generalized anxiety disorder to say such problems can be overcome by sitting beside a tree.

At the same time, however, more and more doctors and therapists the world over are encouraging their patients to get some more green in their lives.

Surprisingly, a new study just released by the University of Exeter suggests these so-called “green prescriptions” from health professionals may not be as good an idea as they seem on the surface. Why? Researchers conclude spending time in nature only really benefits mental health if the individual freely chooses to go outdoors.

Just like that movie you hated but everyone else loves, it seems greenery just doesn’t offer the same mental health relief if it’s forced on us as an obligation. It’s a running theme in human nature; tell us we have to do something and many will instinctively want to rebel.

Nature can no doubt help relieve stress, anxiety, and depression, but not if daily walks in the park are viewed as just another habitual chore to check off the list.

“These findings are consistent with wider research that suggests that urban natural environments provide spaces for people to relax and recover from stress. However, they also demonstrate that healthcare practitioners and loved ones should be sensitive when recommending time in nature for people who have depression and anxiety. It could be helpful to encourage them to spend more time in places that people already enjoy visiting; so they feel comfortable and can make the most of the experience,” explains research leader Dr. Michelle Tester-Jones.

This study encompassed data on over 18,000 people living in 18 different countries. Initially, researchers wanted to better understand what motivates people to spend time in nature, how often these visits occur, and how societal or medical “pressure” influences the emotional outcomes of these excursions.

Notably, many studied people dealing with depression and anxiety reported choosing to visit nature regularly already. Sure enough, most within that group said during those trips they ended up feeling much better mentally. That trend didn’t hold up, though, when participants’ visits to green spaces had been mandated by a health professional. 

Essentially, the more a person is told they should visit nature to feel better, the more anxious they feel about the entire experience. Similar to a reverse placebo effect.

“We had no idea just how much people with depression and anxiety were already using natural settings to help alleviate symptoms and manage their conditions. Our results provide even greater clarity about the value of these places to communities around the world, but also remind us that nature is no silver bullet and needs to be carefully integrated with existing treatment options.” adds Dr. Mathew White, of the University of Exeter and the University of Vienna.

There are no easy answers when it comes to building better mental health, especially on the individual level. What works for one person isn’t going to work for everyone else. Nature, greenery, and beautiful landscapes can certainly help, but shouldn’t be forced on every person who walks into a therapist’s office.

“For green prescriptions, like with any intervention, it is important to avoid pressure to achieve compliance with the treatment. Nature cannot be forced on anyone, but must be provided at the individual’s own pace and will,” concludes Matilda van den Bosch, an Assistant Professor at The University of British Columbia.

The full study can be found here, published in Scientific Reports.