Could a camping trip in the mountains or a long hike through the woods be the effective, low-cost natural antidepressant that you’ve been looking for?
Perhaps. A study conducted by Stanford University researchers demonstrates that simply walking in nature can result in a lower risk of depression. Take a look at what you need to know about how the wilderness can work as an antidepressant and how you can use this information in your life.
The Stanford Study
Sure, people have been using and suggesting nature as a cure or aid for mental, emotional, and even certain physical ailments forever. But how could you really know – in a way that could be objectively measured – whether being in nature actually had an effect on depression or the likelihood of developing depression? Stanford researchers decide to try by measuring rumination.
Rumination is a type of thought pattern that’s commonly associated with depression. When you are sad and can’t stop thinking about the reason why you’re sad – for example, when you’ve just broken up with someone and can’t seem to stop yourself from playing the song that you and your ex first danced to or reading old text messages between the two of you, or just picturing your ex’s face – you’re ruminating.
Scientists know that rumination takes place in a specific portion of your brain, affects women more than men, and they know that if it goes on for too long, depression can set in. So, if walking in the wilderness could decrease rumination, it’s reasonable to believe that it could also decrease the likelihood of depression.
Nature as a Natural Antidepressant
The researchers tested their theory by dividing their study participants into two groups. One group took a walk through a grassland that contains trees and shrubs, and the other group took an equally long walk through a more urban setting – a busy, four-lane street.
What the researchers found was that the part of the brain where rumination takes place was less active following the walk, but only for the participants who walked in nature. The participants who walked along a traffic-filled street did not see the same results.
They measured vital signs and took brain scans before and after the walks, and the participants also submitted to a questionnaire.
What Is It About Nature?
Why would walking in nature decrease rumination? In other circumstances, rumination decreases with positive distractions.
- For example, if you’re feeling sad and a friend comes over to chat with you, you may stop thinking about what was making you sad in the first place while you’re discussing the movies you’ve seen recently or your plans for the weekend.
- Or, if you’ve been ruminating for a while and then decide to start practicing one of your hobbies, you might discover that you’re no longer thinking about whatever was upsetting you while you were counting stitches, choosing paint colors, or gathering ingredients to try out a new recipe.
In these scenarios, a conversation with your friend or the activities involved in your hobby are the positive distractions, guiding your thoughts away from whatever was upsetting you. This makes it all the more interesting that nature would work to decrease rumination and act as a natural antidepressant. You might think that in nature, away from the noise of the city and alone with your thoughts, you’d be more likely to ruminate, not less.
Scientists believe that natural environments have a restorative effect that has psychological benefits. And the effect should hold with many different types of natural landscapes, so you should be able to put it into practice no matter what the natural landscape is in your area. Hiking over flat land should be as effective as hiking through the mountains in terms of mental health, as long as you’re in a natural environment that feels removed from urbanization.
Finding Your Way Into the Wilderness
Of course, it would be far too overly simplistic to tell people who are feeling depressed to just go take a walk in the woods. Rarely is anything that simple. Not everyone has easy access to natural spaces. The majority of people live in cities, and they do so for a reason – that’s where the jobs are, that’s where the housing is, that’s where public transportation and accessible roads are. Even if you have a way to get to a natural area, you might not feel like you have time, energy, or resources to go hiking or camping.
But you don’t necessarily need to make a big-time commitment in order to reap the benefits of spending time in nature. In the Stanford study, researchers saw results after the participants took only a 90-minute walk – something that wouldn’t require a lot of supplies or wilderness knowledge for most people to complete successfully. Other barriers can be more difficult to overcome:
- People who have physical disabilities, for example, may need assistance and adaptive accommodations in order to spend restorative time in the wilderness, and that’s not always easy to accomplish.
- Some people might not have the necessary transportation to get to an area that would qualify as a natural landscape.
- Allergy sufferers might struggle with spending any time at all outdoors during certain seasons, let alone taking long walks in the woods.
What If You’re Already Suffering?
What’s more, while decreasing rumination can act as a natural antidepressant and reduce your chance of developing depression, it may not be enough if you’re already suffering from it. If you’ve been diagnosed with depression, or you think that you should be, be sure to talk to your doctor or therapist about the best treatment for you.
Walks in the wilderness aren’t a perfect solution for everyone. But now that you know that spending time in nature can help reduce the risk of depression, you can try to make it more of a priority if you’re able to. And you may be able to find creative solutions to barriers in your way.
For example, maybe you can’t get to a national park, but you have a friend who has a large backyard full of native trees and plants. Could spending time in that backyard be just as good? It’spossible! And it’s certainly worth a try. Look for opportunities to incorporate the natural antidepressant of nature into your life and routine as much as you can.