Hikers have long maintained that spending time walking through nature has a positive effect on their mental health and mood, and science is beginning to prove them right. The mental benefits of hiking go beyond simply getting exercise (which has long been shown to positively affect mood). The connection to nature seems to be just as important, if not more so.
Negative, Obsessive Thinking and Hiking
Negative thinking and obsessive thoughts are common in the modern world, especially among city dwellers. Unwanted and unpleasant thoughts can reduce enjoyment in life, distract people from other, more pleasant experiences, and even develop into clinical depression and anxiety.
In a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, subjects were interviewed for negative thoughts or ruminations after taking a ninety-minute hike. Some subjects hiked in an urban setting, while others walked in nature.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, an urban hike did nothing to prevent obsessive thinking. Those who hiked natural trails, however, not only reported less intrusive thoughts, but they also exhibited lower neural activity in the brain’s subgenual prefrontal cortex, thought to play a role in mental illness.
The study’s authors are not suggesting hiking is a panacea for mental illness, but the results do suggest natural surroundings might have a soothing effect on the mind.
Something similar has been detected in studies of children with ADHD after time spent in “green outdoor activities.” Impulsivity and attention problems—two significant symptoms of ADHD—reduced in severity after the activities.
Creative Problem Solving and Natural Surroundings
Got a problem that needs solving? A study by psychologists Ruth Ann Atchley and David L. Strayer suggests putting down your phone and taking a walk in the woods might help.
Knowing that both urban environments and technology have disruptive effects on problem solving, the researchers tested subjects after four days in the wilderness without access to technology. Creative problem solving increased by fifty percent.
Nature, it seems, has an incredible effect on our brains. So next time you feel frazzled or find yourself wrestling with an urgent problem, you’ve got a good excuse to take a walk in the woods.