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Nature Can Improve Mental Health During the Pandemic, Study Finds

A woman jogs next to a man on a bike in a lush green park.
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Key Takeaways

  • A survey of 3,000 Tokyo residents found that spending time in nature improved participants’ emotional wellbeing during the pandemic.
  • Even people who simply looked at a green spaces from a window experienced psychological benefits, according to the study.
  • Finding ways to enjoy nature consistently and mindfully could offer relief from stress and anxiety, experts say.

Social distancing and staying at home for months on end can take a toll on your mental health. Eager to help people find relief, scientists may have stumbled upon a free way to feel better: spending time in nature.

A team of researchers from Japan surveyed thousands of people in the world’s largest megacity, Tokyo, to learn how exposure to nature impacted people’s wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic. They found that people who spent time outdoors had more positive mental health outcomes in five key areas compared with participants who didn’t have as much access to nature.

What’s more, the study also showed that people who looked at green spaces from a window experienced similar benefits.

Here’s what researchers have learned about the relationship between the outdoors and mental health, along with guidance on how to find the perfect “dose” of nature therapy for you.

Nature Therapy During the Pandemic

In a study published in the journal Ecological Applications, researchers conducted an online survey of 3,000 people (half women and half men) in Tokyo in early June 2020. Participants were asked to rate five areas of their mental wellbeing, including their anxiety and depression, loneliness, subjective happiness, life satisfaction, and self-esteem, through a series of questions. 

Respondents were also asked how many days per month they spent in nature, how much time they usually spent outdoors, and whether they had views of green spaces from the window of the room they spent the most time in at home. 

Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT

Having any connection to nature, even if it’s just looking out a window and seeing what’s happening out there, can buffer you against the effects of stress for that moment.

— Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT

After adjusting for socioeconomic and lifestyle variables, the researchers found that people who had more exposure to nature had higher self-esteem, happiness, and life satisfaction than participants with less access to the outdoors. The findings also showed reduced anxiety, depression, and loneliness among people who frequently accessed green spaces.

Surprisingly, living in a home with green views from a window had an even more positive effect on mental health than physically visiting green spaces, offering an optimistic outlook for people still cooped up inside during the pandemic. 

“The COVID situation is filled with stressful anticipation and unknowns. Having any connection to nature, even if it’s just looking out a window and seeing what’s happening out there, can buffer you against the effects of stress,” says Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California.

The Relationship Between Nature and Mental Health

This study sets itself apart from many other reports by focusing specifically on nature’s ability to impact mental health during the pandemic. However, it also builds upon a growing body of research that has found a positive relationship between green spaces and mental wellbeing.

A 2019 research review in Science Advances, which looked at earlier studies, has found strong evidence for nature’s ability to affect psychological wellbeing, such as boosting happiness, improving someone’s ability to manage life tasks, offering a sense of purpose in life, and decreasing mental distress. 

The review also found that spending time outdoors can reduce stress, improve sleep, and play a role in reducing symptoms of anxiety disorders and depression. 

Despite continued support for nature’s benefits on health, not everyone has equal access to green spaces. Research has shown that increasing urbanization results in decreased access to nature and less vibrant outdoor experiences among city residents. That, in turn, causes people in urban areas who can’t spend much time in green spaces to have worse health outcomes. 

A deeper understanding of nature’s importance to public health could lead to adjustments in city planning and increased prioritization of parks and other public green spaces in metropolitan areas down the road.

What’s the Perfect Prescription for Nature?

Research is inconclusive when it comes to how frequently and how long someone should spend in nature to get mental health benefits.

Erin Largo-Wight, PhD

Our findings suggest that nature appears to have a positive impact on self-reported and physiological stress in as little as seven to 10 minutes.

— Erin Largo-Wight, PhD

“We’ve explored this question in many studies, and our findings suggest that nature appears to have a positive impact on self-reported and physiological stress in as little as seven to 10 minutes,” says Erin Largo-Wight, PhD, a professor in the department of public health at the University of North Florida and the director of the UNF Environmental Center.

While the recent study in Ecological Applications showed that looking at green spaces from a window can improve psychological wellbeing, Largo-Wight’s work has found that the biggest health benefits come from spending time physically in nature.

“Gardening in your yard or community, hiking a nature trail or in a community park, or sitting at the beach, lake, or waterway are excellent ways to benefit from outdoor nature contact,” she explains, adding that you can “green” your indoor spaces by adding potted plants around your home.

Rather than trying to find the perfect dose of nature for your mental health, focus on finding enjoyable ways to appreciate green spaces on a regular basis, says Mendez. That might mean having breakfast in front of a window with a view of a tree each morning, growing a lush garden in your backyard, taking your dog for walks in the woods, or even embarking on rigorous hikes at nearby state parks on weekends.

“It’s about taking that step in a very mindful way,” says Mendez. “There’s no real prescription for it other than identifying something that’s generally calming to you and personalizing it.”

What This Means For You

People across the world have been stuck inside a lot more than usual during the pandemic. Finding safe ways to enjoy nature may reduce the stress and other psychological effects of this uncertain time. New research suggests that going outside, or simply gazing at green spaces from a window, can improve people’s emotional wellbeing amid COVID-19.

You don’t have to go on multi-mile hikes to reap the benefits of nature. Experts say that spending as little as seven to 10 minutes outside can improve your well-being. The key is to find enjoyable ways to appreciate the outdoors mindfully and consistently.  

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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