We’ve all heard that nature is good for the soul at one point or another. But, how true is that really? Can nature, specifically hiking, really help mental illnesses, increase happiness, and improve our memory? Well, thanks to many different scientists and their research, we’ve come up with some answers.
Environmental psychology is the belief that nature plays a role in how we think, feel, and behave. To dig even deeper, a man named Roger Ulrich came up with a theory that stated that the reason nature can be healing toward humans is because we have a deep, natural attraction to it. However, thanks to the ever-growing urban lifestyle, we are becoming more distant from nature.
The busy lifestyles we have started to live cause us to struggle with rumination. Rumination is repetitive, negative thoughts that we tend to put all of our focus on. These thoughts could range anywhere from remembering embarrassing moments or disappointments, to thinking back on negative things you’ve said or done in the past. Rumination can be one of the lead causes of anxiety and depression. So, what can we do to prevent this?
Researchers at Stanford University conducted a study to see how nature really effected humans and their mental health. To do this, they gathered two groups of people. One group was told to go on a hike, and one was told to walk in the city. They performed tests before they left, and then the same tests after they returned. Those who went on a hike were showing a decrease in rumination and neural activity (specifically in the prefrontal cortex which is the part of the brain that relates to mental illnesses), while those who walked in the city showed no decrease at all.
What about the hike caused a decrease? Well, the researchers stated that people will usually choose a natural environment in hopes of finding relief from the negative aspects of life. They choose nature because that’s where they feel accepted and like they’re truly escaping for a moment in time. The fascination we experience while hiking allows us to create a distraction from the bad things going on around us. This allows us to exchange the negative thoughts for the beauty and simplicity of the outdoors.
Not only does hiking effect your mood, but it also boosts your memory! While you’re out hiking, your heart and sweat glands start pumping. This causes the verbal memory and learning part of the brain to swell up. Normally, as you get older, this area will start to shrink, resulting in memory loss. So, to keep your memory sharp, hike and make your brain increase in size.
Now, lastly, everyone knows about endorphins. They’re the “feel good” chemicals. These hormones relieve stress and pain while boosting happiness. Endorphins are sometimes compared to opioids (crazy, right?!). To increase the amount of endorphins you have, get out and hike! The more endorphins you release, the more it can help with anxiety and depression.
Hiking is the best medicine. If you’re feeling blue, go find a trail to walk. You’re bound to feel better by the end, since we have science to prove it. And if you need any more convincing, check out this blog post on why I choose to hike.