Talk therapy (psychotherapy), antidepressant medication, and lifestyle changes are often essential tools for managing major depression. But sometimes just soaking up some sunshine, breathing a little fresh air, and feeling your toes in the grass can provide relief from depression symptoms too.
“When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: What would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?” wrote Henry David Thoreau in The Atlantic in 1862.
Thoreau extolled (and extolled and extolled—the piece was more than 12,000 words long) the virtues of walking in untamed environments. In the decades since, psychologists have proved him right. Exposure to nature has been shown repeatedly to reduce stress and boost well-being.
But scientists haven’t been sure why. Does it have to do with the air? The sunshine? Some sort of evolutionary proclivity toward green-ness?
The Benefits of Going Outdoors
Although some research shows that being outdoors can be a mood booster, the science behind it has not been fully proven until recently. “Much of the evidence of the positive effects of outdoor living and exercise is anecdotal,” says Brad M. Reedy, PhD, a partner and the director of clinical services at Second Nature Wilderness Programs in Duchesne, Utah. Fortunately, there are many ways to get outdoors and test the theory for yourself.
Wilderness therapy programs, such as those run by Dr. Reedy, use nature to teach skills that can also help you manage symptoms of major depression. “By meeting challenges and problem-solving in a natural setting, self-esteem and a sense of self-efficacy are improved,” he says.
Being in the great outdoors lends itself to mindfulness, Reedy says, which is a key element of a type of evidence-based therapy known as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). This therapy encourages accepting things that make you uncomfortable versus struggling with them. “DBT has been shown to be effective in treating mood disorders and chronically suicidal individuals,” he says.
In addition to nature’s calming effect on depression symptoms, being outdoors gives you a great excuse to exercise, another important way to help manage depression. While exercise boosts endorphins — natural body chemicals that elicit sensations of pleasure — exercising outdoors can improve self-esteem and reduce feelings of depression, anger, and tension, according to a review of research published in the journal Extreme Physiology & Medicine in 2013.
So couple the effects of exercise with the mood-boosting properties of the great outdoors, and you’ll address your body’s physical and emotional needs. The researchers also noted that the first five minutes of outdoor exercise offer the greatest benefits, proving that you do not have to devote hours of time outside to reap the rewards.
‘Going Green’ to Calm Major Depression
Dick Sederquist, an avid hiker, credits time spent in nature with helping him manage the depression he has had his whole life. The retired engineer-turned-author and motivational speaker goes hiking when he needs a mental boost.
“During the worst of my depression and loss of hope and self-esteem, hiking gave me concrete goals, the satisfaction of achieving those goals, and a source of hope in planning and achieving future goals,” Sederquist says. “Hiking is like entering a time machine, a timeless experience. Deep in the woods, away from the traffic noise, all you feel is the exertion, your breathing, and the elements around you. It’s impossible to be distracted by your everyday worries and concerns.”
Kristen Kalp struggles with major depression and enjoys nature to help manage her mood. “I use the outdoors to get into my body for a walk, a jog, a bit of yoga, or lying-on-the-grass meditation,” Kalp says. “Being outside helps clear my head, lift my spirits, and increase my focus on the present moment.” Being near water is particularly healing for her. “I notice all my problems seem lighter and less stressful,” she says. “Throwing off my shoes and splashing in a stream does more for my mental state than weeks of talk therapy does.”
Maximizing Nature’s Benefits for Depression
Whether you have major depression or simply want to improve your emotional health, start finding ways to get outdoors each day, Reedy says. Absorb nature with all of your senses. Listen to the birds, smell freshly cut grass, dip your toes in a pond or stream. If you usually exercise in a gym, try taking your workout outside — go for a walk, a run, a hike, or a bike ride. Head outside to have lunch or dinner.
Spending time in nature cannot replace your prescribed depression treatment plan, but it can be a helpful complement to it. There is something about the great outdoors, that soothes the soul. “Gratitude and mindfulness, beauty and serenity are inherent in nature,” Reedy says. “The silence of nature quiets the mind and offers a person the opportunity to get in touch with the core of the self.”
Hiking in Nature Can Stop Negative, Obsessive Thoughts
Aside from the almost instant feeling of calm and contentment, that accompanies time outdoors, hiking in nature can reduce rumination. Many of us often find ourselves consumed by negative thoughts, which takes us out of the enjoyment of the moment at best and leads us down a path to depression and anxiety at worst. But a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that spending time in nature decreases these obsessive, negative thoughts by a significant margin.
To conduct this study, researchers compared the reported rumination of participants who hiked through either an urban or a natural environment. They found those who walked for 90 minutes in a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and they also had reduced neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain related to mental illness. Those who walked through the urban environment, however, did not report decreased rumination.
The researchers noted that increased urbanization closely correlates with increased instances of depression and other mental illness. Taking the time to regularly remove ourselves from urban settings and spend more time in nature can greatly benefit our psychological (and physical) well-being.
Hiking While Disconnected From Technology Boosts Creative Problem Solving
A study conducted by psychologists Ruth Ann Atchley and David L. Strayer found that creative problem solving can be drastically improved by both disconnecting from technology and reconnecting with nature. Participants in this study went backpacking through nature for about 4 days, during which time they were not allowed to use any technology whatsoever. They were asked to perform tasks, which required creative thinking and complex problem solving, and researchers found that performance on problem solving tasks improved by 50% for those who took part in this tech-free hiking excursion.
The researchers of this study noted that both technology and urban noise are incredibly disruptive, constantly demanding our attention and preventing us from focusing, all of which can be taxing to our cognitive functions. A nice long hike, sans technology, can reduce mental fatigue, soothe the mind, and boost creative thinking.
Hiking Outdoors Can Improve ADHD in Children
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is becoming more and more common among children. Children who have ADHD have a difficult time with impulse control and staying focused, they get distracted easily, and exhibit excessive hyperactivity.
While raising children who have ADHD can be difficult for parents, the usual solution — opting for prescription medication — may be doing more harm than good, particularly when natural solutions can work just as well. A study conducted by Frances E Kup, PhD, and Andrea Faber Taylor, PhD, found that exposing children with ADHD to “green outdoor activities” reduces symptoms significantly. The results of this study suggest nature exposure can benefit anyone who has a difficult time paying attention and/or exhibits impulsive behavior.
Hiking in Nature Is Great Exercise and Therefore Boosts Brainpower
We already know that exercising is fantastic for our overall well-being. Hiking is an excellent way to burn between 400 – 700 calories per hour, depending on your size and the hike difficulty, and it is easier on the joints than other activities like running. It has also been proven that people who exercise outside are more likely to keep at it and stick to their programs, making hiking an excellent choice for those wishing to become more active on a regular basis.
Researchers from the University of British Columbia found that aerobic exercise increases hippocampal volume — the part of the brain associated with spatial and episodic memory — in women over the age of 70. Such exercise not only improves memory loss, but helps prevent it as well. Researchers also found that it can also reduce stress and anxiety, boost self-esteem, and release endorphins. Many people take medication to solve each and every one of these issues, but the solution to these ills may be a lot simpler than you think!
How it works?
Studies of MRI to measure brain activity found that when participants viewed nature scenes, the anterior insular cortex (the activity center of human empathy), lit up compared to images of urban scenes, the amygdala located deep in the anterior inferior temporal lobe of the brain (associated with fear and anxiety) was triggered.
Here are the main catalysts:
ü Oxytocin. Is a hormone that is released into the blood during various types of touching; cuddling, hugging, kissing, and so on. Oxytocin stimulates muscle contractions and increases heart rate producing emotional feeling associated with love, peace, nurturing, and security. Hiking and viewing nature are catalysts for such a release, and who does not need to feel loved? Especially when you are in the dumps.
ü Endorphins. Are released by the pituitary gland, and makes you feel stimulated, blocking out feelings of pain, allowing one to “get over” what they may be experiencing in their life at the time.
ü Dopamine. Is a pleasure chemical, and is often associated with orgasms. Hiking stimulates dopamine production, not exactly providing you the big “O”, but definitely getting some of the happy feels shooting through your system instead of the “poor me” vibes.
ü Serotonin. A chemical responsible for happiness, restful sleep, and a healthy appetite. Serotonin works with endorphins to make walking and hiking a pleasurable activity. It also encourages more serotonin and brings more energy and clearer thinking, pushing those depressive, confusing thoughts aside.
So, all in all, the activity of hiking isn’t just about the exercise, but the visual cues and hormone release that makes different areas of our brains light up, triggering good emotions and lowering stress, reducing depression, and giving us an overall feeling well-being, thus helping relieve a depressive state.
More healing Benefits of Hiking
Some research suggests that the physical benefits of hiking extend far beyond cardiovascular health, and may even go as far as to help cancer patients recover. In a study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine researchers measured oxidative stress (thought to play a role in the onset, progression and recurrence of cancer) rates of women with breast cancer and men with prostate cancer before and after hiking. The study found that long distance hiking trips may improve the antioxidative capacity, which helps fight off disease, in the blood of oncological patients. Another study showed that breast cancer survivors who exercised regularly — many in the form of hiking — believed that physical activity complemented their recovery from cancer treatment.
How Can You Begin To Start Hiking?
Luckily, hiking is one of the easiest and least expensive sports to get involved in, and it can have great benefits for the whole family, including grandma! Start out small and test your abilities. Do what works for you — if that means just walking through trails in a park, that is fine. Any exercise outdoors is better than none. You can easily find maps of trails around your home online, and there are plenty of smartphone apps to map them out, too.
Make sure you have some good sturdy hiking shoes, a hat, and a water bottle, and be sure to layer your clothing so you can take things on or off easily as you warm up and cool down. You may want to consider using trekking poles as well, which can increase your speed and take some of the pressure off your knees.
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