Brandon Butler: Time spent in nature improves mental health
Nature heals. It doesn’t matter whether you’re climbing the tallest mountain, strolling a trail in a local park, casting a lure to fish in a farm pond, or just sitting on a bench and listening to the chirping of the birds. The power of nature will lower your blood pressure, calm your thoughts, and help you see the important aspects of your life more clearly.
Many of us know this because we have lived it all our lives. It seems so crude to say, but there are countless city and suburban dwellers who rarely, if ever, venture into natural environments. If they did, they would likely find the hard-to-find peace and serenity in a concrete jungle filled with noise and light pollution.
According to a recent study by a team from the University of Exeter, just hearing the sounds of nature calms us down. In the study, data was collected from 7,500 people who listened to sounds from a variety of natural environments, including coastal and woodland settings in the UK and a tropical rainforest in Papua New Guinea.
According to the results, participants reported therapeutic effects from listening to landscape elements such as crashing waves or falling rain. Hearing wildlife in these environments, and birdsong in particular, further enhanced their potential for recovery from stress and mental fatigue.
Alex Smalley, who led the research at the University of Exeter, said in a press release: “As cities and towns have calmed down during recent lockdowns, many people have rediscovered the natural sounds around them. . Our results suggest that shielding these experiences may benefit both mental health and conservation behavior. But they also provide a stark warning that when it comes to nature, memories matter. If we hope to harness the health benefits of nature in the future, we must ensure that everyone has the opportunity to foster positive experiences with the natural world today.
The press release states, crucially, that the team’s results also suggest that these results could be heavily influenced by people’s past experiences. Those who had sounds-triggered memories not only found them more restorative, but this increased “therapeutic potential” directly fueled their desire to protect soundscapes for future generations. Worryingly, soundscapes without the sounds of wildlife – reflecting a decline in environmental quality – have reduced this potential for psychological benefits, with people’s motivation to protect these ecosystems also seeming to follow suit.
Becky Ripley, producer of the BBC Forest 404 podcast series, said: “The planet is undergoing an unprecedented ecological collapse, and with it the sound of the world is changing around us. Yet how we might experience these changes has never been explored before. Our results demonstrate that people not only place a high value on the sounds of birds and animals, but also feel a loss when these sounds are missing.
I lost a lifelong friend to suicide last week. He leaves behind three young children (6, 4 and 2 years old) and his wife who does not know how she will cope on her own. This friend has never really experienced nature. He moved to Chicago immediately after graduating from college and began his unsuccessful quest to become a dominant player in the financial world. His aspirations exceeded his accomplishments, and all I can find to justify his latest decision is that ultimately the stress of chasing the unattainable wore him down.
I’ve never been shy about talking about mental illness. Nathan “Shags” McLeod and I even produced an entire episode of our Driftwood Outdoors podcast called “Getting Your Mind Right” which featured my friend who is a licensed therapist. We did this on an outdoors-themed podcast because we know how many people struggle with depression and other mental health issues. We want to make it very clear that there is no shame in seeking help for your mental health, just as you would for your physical health.
While I dare not claim that all one needs to do is get outside to have a clear mind, I will argue that I believe that time in nature, hearing natural sounds and seeing natural sights is good for your mental health. If my friend had spent more time taking his kids for walks in nature reserves near his home instead of watching stock quotes online, would he still be here? I do not know. But I have to think there’s a chance he is. If he could have found glory in the simple pleasures of life.
Fishing, hunting and all outdoor activities are my therapy. When I’m outside breathing fresh air and letting my skin soak up the sun, my problems take a back seat. I can clear my head and think more deliberately. I believe that appreciating and interacting with nature puts into perspective what really matters in life, which is your people, your food and your shelter. The rest is clutter. Carrots hanging from sticks.
If you have mental health issues, please seek help. You may not realize it at the time, but you are loved. You are loved by your loved ones, and in general by your fellow men. Ask for help. It is there waiting for you. And get out of the house. Turn off the electronics. Find a trail and go for a walk. Listen to the birds. Look at the beautiful wildflowers. Take deep breaths of fresh air. Such experiences will help you.
See you on the trail…