How Nature Calms Your Mind

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
November 22, 2022
How Nature Calms Your Mind

To do our best work, we need to give our minds a rest periodically, even during a workday. Try resting your eyes on a babbling brook or majestic tree.

When Marsha Jacobson, a business consultant, agreed to a job that would last over a year, she was assigned an interior office — not a cubicle, but a room with no windows at all.

She was used to natural light during her workday, and she worried that the room would be dispiriting. So, she pulled out her nature photos from trips to Japan, Africa, and Vietnam, blew them up to poster size, found inexpensive frames, and filled up the walls.

It worked.


YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: Daydreaming Is Good for Your Health


To do our best work, we need to give our minds a periodic rest, even during a workday. It turns out that natural environments — and even photos of nature — provide a particular kind of rest.

Although once upon a time we’d have kept an eye out for a predator, today we relax the part of the mind that focuses on specifics — like that traffic light and oncoming car. But other areas stay engaged, in beneficial ways.

As the authors explain in one key study, natural environments provide “softly fascinating stimulation that captures bottom–up involuntary attention mechanisms.”

This is especially important if you have trouble stopping repetitive worry. Psychologists call brooding “rumination,” the same word we use for cows chewing their cud over and over.

You’re ruminating when you hash over the details of a cryptic email repeatedly without reaching insights. You may think you’re problem-solving, but too often you end up thinking, “What’s wrong with me?” 

Rumination is more common among women and may be why women are more prone to depression. Rumination also  plays a role in anxiety, binge eating, and binge drinking, among other problems. It may be linked to more activity in certain brain regions — especially when you’re not engaged in a mental task.

A growing body of research, still with mixed results, has explored the idea that nature brings serenity. A Japanese brain scan study, for example, concluded that viewing images of nature improves mood by calming two other parts of the brain known to be overactive in patients with depression and anxiety.

We know that exercise adds to the benefit of natural surroundings. In one study, scientists gave volunteers tests of their attentiveness and mood before and after a 50-minute walk through a leafy area at Stanford, which maintains a huge campus.

After their dose of greenery, the volunteers were less anxious and more focused. Another group took a walk beside a busy multi-lane highway in Palo Alto and didn’t emerge nearly as refreshed.

The same team followed up by scanning the brains of volunteers before and after a nature walk, aiming this time to pin down its effect on rumination.

The team found that volunteers who took a 90-minute walk on quiet, tree-lined paths had less blood flow in the region linked to ruminating afterwards. They also seemed happier in their answers on questionnaires.

The results weren’t huge but significant and better than the measurements among the group that walked along the highway.

For the sake of the study, the volunteers were instructed not to listen to music or bring friends. But, of course, if music or companionship helps your own mood, as it does for many, don’t hesitate.

Does this benefit play out over time?

In further research, the Stanford team followed more than 600 students over 16 months, tracking how much time they spent in nature each week, with an assessment of how much time they spent ruminating and their moods. Overall, the team concluded that spending time in nature was linked to less rumination and fewer episodes of low mood.   

Other research has found a link between living in a greener area and lower blood pressure. Greenery isn’t just good for people prone to anxiety; it makes most people feel good.

A study based on data from Toronto concluded that “having 10 more trees in a city block, on average, improves health perception in ways comparable to an increase in annual income of $10,000 and moving to a neighborhood with $10,000 higher median income. We also find that having 11 more trees in a city block, on average, decreases cardio-metabolic conditions in ways comparable to an increase in annual personal income of $20,000 and moving to a neighborhood with $20,000 higher median income or being 1.4 years younger,” the authors write.

Should you move to get more of those trees? Maybe.

A British study tracking around 600 people who moved to a greener area found that they were happier (according to answers on questionnaires) in each of the next three years post-move. A comparison group of people who moved to less green areas had an initial plunge in mood but returned to baseline afterwards.

If you’re a ruminator, avoid worrying about why you’re a ruminator. Instead, take a walk in the most natural setting nearby or look at nature photos.


YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: Our Life Balance section


November 22, 2022

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN