Environmental Effects on the Mind and Body: Depression Relief
Nature is an important aspect of our daily lives that is too often taken for granted. Now, in our technologically-driven society, we are often shut away from nature, and the times that we are out in nature, we are unable to appreciate it in its entire splendor. It is hard to truly separate yourself from the rest of the world, considering we are always “on”, but the effects of doing so prove beneficial to your general well-being and emotional clarity.
“[We] are all a part of nature. We are born in nature; our bodies are formed of nature; we live by the rules of nature,” writes Wesley P. Schultz, PhD, professor of psychology at California State University San Marcos. Why then, are we so avoidant of nature? Schultz explains that historically, it was necessary for us to be in nature — we hunted, lived, socialized and traveled in nature. As we progressed and became more technologically advanced we became more shut in — living, socializing, and traveling predominantly in man-made environments (Schultz, 2002).
Now, when we interact with the environment it is with the idea of “what can I get from this environment?” It can be argued that some people still hunt, but this is more to derive a sense of pleasure or sport, rather than for survival. Hunting as a requirement for sustenance is no longer there.
This overwhelming idea that nature is something outside of us is rooted in and motivated by our consumerism. We have become heavily reliant upon our things and what those things can offer us — a sense of identity, a sense of community and acceptance. We no longer consider where these things come from. The phrase “Keeping up with the Jones’s” is more relevant than ever in the 21st century. Every few months there are new trends we need to buy into to be considered relevant and be accepted by our peers. And of course this is the only way we are able to derive any sort of happiness. This, of course, is not the way to find happiness, and in fact if we were to rely more on the environment and lead a more simplistic life, we would be more likely to find a truer, long-lasting kind of happiness.
This is not only due to the aesthetic appeal nature offers us, but because we, like plants, require the environment for survival. The sun is of particular importance in maintaining a healthy mind. Depression is a significant mood disorder whereby those diagnosed with it experience a depressed or irritable mood, fatigue or loss of energy, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, suicidal ideation and a decreased interest or pleasure in most activities (APA, 2013). Exposure to the sun can help moderate mood by activating the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin. It can also help with vitamin-D levels, which is important for proper bone health (Nall, 2015).
Physical health is directly correlated to mental health. The brain and body should not be treated as separate from each other, because they are inter-related; “in terms of the way it functions, the brain is always linked to the body and, through the senses, to the world outside” (Doidge, 2015).
The sun is not the only aspect of nature that has beneficial effects for treating depression and relieving every day stress. Simply put, the aesthetic provided by nature elicits an overwhelming feeling of awe and admiration, particularly due to its beauty. The romantic poets acknowledged the power nature has over us. Consider these lines from Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight:
“For I was reared
In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags”
Here Coleridge acknowledges the better life he hopes his child will have because of his constant exposure to and interaction with nature, as opposed to his life cloistered away from nature. This is not to say that Coleridge understood the positive psychological and physiological effects nature has on us, rather, his, along with other romantic poets, can offer some insight into nature and its effects. Surely if he, along with other poets of his time, felt the power and pull of nature without understanding the underlying reason, there are significant and positive effects.
Fresh air, provided by surrounding yourself with more green space offers positive effects on the brain, due to the increased amount of clean oxygen which is essential for proper blood-flow. Taking a walk in a forest not only provides exercise and a beautiful atmosphere, it also provides one with a way to connect with nature — in a spiritual and very necessary physical way. Trees and greenery provide us with clean air and oxygen needed to keep the brain healthy. These important physiological effects have a significant effect on our mental state as well. It offers us a more calm and relaxed mood, and further offers us a feeling of connectivity to nature. The importance of this connectivity should not be underestimated, nor should the healing properties that nature provides us.
Consider Sister Jean Ward, in WWII, who brought premature babies with jaundice into a sunlit courtyard in the hospital in Essex, England. Their condition improved due to the wavelengths of visible blue light in the sun radiating through the exposed skin. Light also decreases pain and improves sleep, which of course is closely related to feelings of depression (Doidge, 2015). A lack of sleep may make it difficult to focus or enjoy proper cognitive functioning, and depress the body. Feeling tired makes the mind tired, and since the body is not getting enough rest it has no way to regenerate itself for the next day. This may have negative effects on both the mind and body, contributing, not only to sleep problems and the perpetuation of depressive symptoms, but may also contribute to the development of pain (Mann, 2010). Therefore, getting the proper amount of sunlight is essential to proper functioning, and improving mental health.
How do we get the proper amount of sunlight and fresh air? By going back to nature. It is the most simplistic, yet essential mode of treatment for feelings of depression. Perhaps, by experiencing the regenerative properties nature has to offer us, we too, may feel compelled to write about nature’s beauty like Coleridge and the many romantic poets of his time.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed).
Coleridge, T. S. (1997). Frost at Midnight. In Keach, W. (Eds.), The Complete Works. (231-232). England: Penguin Books.
Doidge, N. (2015). The Brain’s Way of Healing. New York: Viking.
Nall, R. (2015). What are the benefits of sunlight? Retrieved from: http://www.healthline.com/health/depression/benefits-sunlight#Overview1
Mann, D. (2010). Pain: The Sleep Thief. Retrieved from: http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/excessive-sleepiness-10/pain-sleep?page=2
Schultz, P. W. (2002). Inclusion with Nature: The Psychology Of Human-Nature Relations. In Schmuck, P., & Schultz, P. W. (Eds). Psychology of Sustainable Development (61-78). New York: Springer US.
Bourassa, T. (2019). Environmental Effects on the Mind and Body: Depression Relief. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 8, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/environmental-effects-on-the-mind-and-body-depression-relief/