Like many Americans, you may have never heard of Nature-Deficit Disorder, but you could be suffering from it without even knowing. The good news is, you can cure yourself and your loved ones, and you can have fun doing it!
The Great Outdoors According to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, nature-deficit disorder is a real condition that even has doctors writing prescriptions for their patients to spend more time outdoors. Adults and children alike increasingly spend more time indoors, not only for work or school, but for leisure activities as well. Whether it’s video gaming, binge-watching favorite TV shows or surfing the internet, use of today’s technology has drastically reduced the amount of time spent enjoying the great outdoors. And the outdoors is called “great” for a reason! Research continues to provide us with evidence that spending time in nature can greatly improve mental health in both children and adults suffering from a wide range of neurological, psychological, and social/emotional disorders. Not only does it reduce pain and suffering of people with these conditions, time spent outdoors also increases creativity, productivity and overall happiness in all populations studied. Mental Health Benefits It’s comforting to know that relief from everything from “the blahs” to more serious conditions such as depression or ADHD could be found as easily as a walk in the park. ADHD affects up to 11% of children, and according to the University of Illinois Landscape and Human Health Laboratory’s most recent report, performing activities outside in greenspaces increased attention and improved other symptoms of children with ADHD. Likewise, psychologists Andrea Taylor and Frances Kuo, found that it didn’t matter what activity was performed but rather the degree of greenness of the environment that provided the most therapeutic effects. Whether kids were playing sports or just reading, doing so in environments with more trees and greenspace was more beneficial than in outdoor spaces that lacked greenery. In another Stanford led study, adults who either spent 90 minutes walking in a high traffic urban area or a natural area, results demonstrated similar findings in regard to depression. The researchers found that neural activity in the part of the brain responsible for repetitive thoughts that focus on negative emotions decreased among participants who walked in nature compared to those who walked in an urban environment. “This finding is exciting because it demonstrates the impact of nature experience on an aspect of emotion regulation – something that may help explain how nature makes us feel better,” said lead author Gregory Bratman, a graduate student in Stanford’s Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, the Stanford Psychophysiology Lab and the Center for Conservation Biology. Social/Emotional and Spiritual Benefits Spending time in nature improves our social/emotional and spiritual well-being, too. Studies reinforce what parents seem to know instinctively when they tell kids to “just go outside”; that children who play outside have fewer problems with peer relations and the experiences they have in nature allow them to become more resilient and connected with the environment. In adults, group walks in nature were associated with significantly lower depression, perceived stress, and negative affect, while improving mood and feeling of well-being. Walking with others in nature also lessens the effects and helps us cope with stressful life events. Experiencing nature allows you to step outside of yourself and your worries and be mindful of the beauty of your surroundings – grounded in the here and now. However, despite the fact that spending time outdoors is a direct line to happiness, Holli-Anne Passmore says it’s not necessarily the amount of time spent outdoors or having extreme wilderness experiences; if people simply take time to notice the nature around them, it will increase their general happiness and well-being. This is as easy as taking a moment to watch the bird on the fence outside your office window, or recognizing the leaves are changing on the tree at the bus stop. Creativity and Productivity Did you know that the average American spends over 90% of their time indoors? It’s no wonder that even just 5 minutes of time spent outside can do a lot of good. On a day-to-day basis, we use what psychologists refer to as “voluntary” or active attention, which is necessary for us to carry out high level cognitive functions required of us not only at work, but as we react to or block out various stimuli in our hectic lives. This type of attention gets depleted though, and an easy way to replenish it is through spending time in nature where we switch to “involuntary” or passive attention. This concept is laid out in Attention Restoration Theory which outlines the need for restorative environments, such as walking in nature, where our attention is not directed purposefully by us; we are noticing interesting scenery and allowing our minds to wander. Getting outside in nature during the work or school day, has not only been shown to increase productivity through better concentration, but also increases creativity when problem-solving. When disconnected from technology, participants who spent time in nature increased their performance in creative problem-solving tasks by up to 50%. And, although the idea of teaching outdoor lessons had teachers fearful of students being distracted and overactive; in this study, classroom engagement was significantly better following lessons in nature. This suggests that, far from leaving students too keyed up to concentrate afterward, teaching lessons outside helps students to engage in the next lesson and should be included more in formal education. The Cure: Ways to Enjoy More Outdoor Time So, what is the cure for Nature-Deficit Disorder and how much time does it take to reap the benefits of spending time outdoors? According to the International Journal of Environmental Health Research, spending just 20 minutes in a park — even if you don’t exercise while you’re there — is enough to improve well-being. Even when time outside was not enjoyed as much, such as during winter, people still performed better on cognitive tasks afterwards. And, more physicians are encouraging their patients with chronic health issues, including mental health disorders, to view time spent outdoors as medicine by writing prescriptions. Here is a video of a young girl, suffering from chest pain and crushing headaches, who receives a “nature prescription” from her doctor. In many cases, these prescriptions allow people to get free admission to national parks through various regional and national programs. “There’s a paradigm shift in the way we think about parks: not just as a place to recreate, but literally as a prescription, a place to improve your health,” says Dr. Robert Zarr, a pediatrician who founded Park Rx America in 2017. Their mission is to make it easier for health professionals to write park prescriptions for people of all ages to decrease the burden of chronic disease, increase health and happiness, and foster environmental stewardship. Here are just a few examples of the many programs and organizations working to promote enjoying the outdoors for health purposes:
- The U.S. National Park Service’sHealthy Parks Healthy People program highlights parks as a “powerful health prevention strategy” and have scheduled events throughout the year, both locally and nationally.
- Walk With a Doc sponsors free physician-led community walks and operates in 47 states.
- Kids in Parks offers an expanding network of family-friendly outdoor adventures called TRACK Trails. Each TRACK Trail features self-guided brochures and signs that make the outdoor experience fun for kids. Best of all, kids can earn PRIZES for tracking their adventures!
- Free Forest School is a free group where preschool age children and their caregivers can enjoy social time while playing outside, hiking and exploring nature together.
If you need relief from a mental health disorder, inspiration for a creative project or are just looking to improve your overall happiness and well-being, the overwhelming consensus is to get yourself outside in nature – bonus points if you bring a friend! Whether it’s a quick walk through a local park or three days spent forest bathing, research says you will feel better. So, what are you waiting for? Take a hike! Doctor’s orders.