Will doctors soon prescribe ‘nature’ to their patients?

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – @BednarChuck

Could doctors one day tell their patients to “take two laps around the walking trail and call me in the morning?” Researchers at Stanford University seem to think so, and that it could help keep us from dwelling on negative things and getting depressed.

In research published in a recent edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, doctoral student Gregory Bratman and his colleagues found that more than half of all people currently live in urban areas, and that urbanization has linked to an increased risk of mental illness for reasons currently not known.

The researchers conducted an experiment to see if nature-based experiences could influence a person’s tendency to repetitively focus their thoughts on negative aspects of the self – a known risk factor for mental illness known as rumination. They had some participants go on a 90 minute walk through a natural environment and others walk next to a busy street in Palo Alto.

Those who walked through the natural environment self-reported lower levels of rumination than those walking through the city, and they also showed reduced neural activity in the parts of the brain associated with risk for mental illness, according to the study authors. They believe that the findings underscore the importance of nature when it comes to our mental health.

Findings suggest a link between urbanization, mental illness

Bratman told BBC News that the shift from predominantly rural living to predominantly urban living has “happened in a blink of an eye in terms of human evolution,” and that the percentage of people calling cities their home is projected to rise to at least 70 percent by the year 2050.

He added that there is “an increasing body of evidence showing that natural versus urban areas benefit us at least emotionally with our mood and possibly also our cognitive development too. You could think of these mental health benefits of nature as a psychological ecosystem service.”

According to Stanford, men and women living in the city have a 20 percent higher risk of anxiety disorders and a 40 percent higher risk of mood disorders versus those in rural areas. Furthermore, people who were born and raised in cities are two times more likely to develop schizophrenia.

Bratman called the research “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.” Co-author James Gross, a psychology professor at the university, added that the findings were “consistent with, but do not yet prove, a causal link between increasing urbanization and increased rates of mental illness.”


Follow redOrbit on TwitterFacebookGoogle+, Instagram and Pinterest.