Spending time in nature eases depression, and could be a good supplement to medicine and therapy.
Remedies for depression abound, from medications to psychotherapy, or talk therapy. Having a range of treatment options is a good idea because no single treatment works equally well for each of the millions of U.S. adults with depression. Now researchers say a new therapy, proven to relieve depression, should be added to the mix as a supplement to established treatments. It's called nature.
Interacting with nature can have replenishing effects for those with depression, says Ethan Kross, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and one of many experts who has studied the nature-depression link.
A little dose of nature helps us all recharge, but it may have special benefit for those who are depressed. "It seems that, from our work, the restorative effect of nature seems to be stronger for individuals diagnosed with depression," says Marc Berman, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. That might be because they feel mentally fatigued, and being in nature re-energizes them. However, Dr. Berman has a strong caveat: "We're not arguing that interacting with nature should replace clinically proven therapies for depression," he says. Nor should those with clinical depression try to treat themselves.
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However, Berman and others say, interactions with nature could serve as a very effective supplemental treatment.
What Nature-Depression Research Shows
Among the studies finding nature helps with depression:
Adults with depression who took a 50-minute walk in a natural setting for one research session and then a 50-minute walk in an urban setting for another research session were less depressed and had better memory skills after they took the nature walk.
Adults who moved to greener urban areas, compared to less green, had better mental health during follow-up three years after the move.
Those who took group nature walks reported less depression, less stress, and a better sense of well-being than those who didn't take nature walks, according to a study that looked at more than 1,500 people in a walking program.
Being outdoors and in nature boosts vitality, which experts define as having physical and mental energy. Those with depression often report fatigue and decreased energy. Researchers found the energy-boosting effect of nature was independent of the physical activity or social interaction experienced while outdoors.
How Nature Works Its Magic
The phenomenon of how nature helps improve depression is still being analyzed fully, Dr. Kross says.
One possibility, Berman says, is that interacting with nature helps due to the attention-restoration theory. "We have two kinds of attention," he says. "One is top-down (also called directed), the kind we use at work." Directed attention can be depleted fairly quickly, as you can only focus and concentrate for so long.
Another type of attention is bottom-up, or involuntary. "That's the kind automatically captured by things in the environment, such as lights or music." Involuntary attention is less susceptible to depletion. "You don't often hear people say, 'I can't look at this waterfall any longer,'" Berman says.
Why does nature hold this special effect? In a natural environment, we can choose to think or not, Berman says, and this choice is believed to help us rest our brains. You can then pay attention later, when you need to. "It is giving people more ability to concentrate, which is a big problem for those with depression," Berman says. Nature provides an effective setting for resting our brains, unlike urban settings. Even in the most peaceful urban environment, you have to pay attention to such things as traffic and stoplights.
Nature's replenishing effect is fairly instantaneous, Berman says. So if you're depressed and having an especially bad day, a quick dose of nature might help.
However, Berman cautions that anyone with clinical depression needs to be under a doctor's care, with supervision of all their treatments.