‘Universally therapeutic’: Outdoors foster positive mental health outcomes

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Betsy Siegal/Staff

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Alienor Baskevitch, a campus microbiology doctoral student, is enthralled by the sensory experience of the outdoors — the sun, the air and being surrounded by flora and fauna brings her unfiltered, anxiety-free joy.

Amid the pandemic, however, local authorities closed off parks, trails and camping sites around Berkeley. Preventing the spread of COVID-19 was the priority, but Baskevitch recalled that losing access to her outdoor stomping grounds complicated her stress management and self-care.

“Going outside definitely helps me destress,” Baskevitch said in an email. “It creates a separation between me and the things that contribute to my stress; most of those things are ‘inside things’ — things like working on the computer for class or research, keeping up with obligations, sending emails. … My mental health really declined during that period.”

Undergraduate cognitive science student Sheer Karny also noted that spending time on his screens created an unhealthy “tunnel vision.” Escaping outside loosened the expectations of being available online; gaining outdoor stimulation allowed him to calm down, settle and “find the things that make me feel whole.”

Campus neurobiology professor David Presti described the correlation between increased screen time and decreased mental health — particularly increased anxiety and depressed moods.

There is a researched correlation between improvements in mental wellness and exposure to the outdoors, according to University Health Services Counseling and Psychological Services counselor Elizabeth Aranda. Aranda added that nature’s fractal patterns have an evolutionary healing property that eases the human mind.

“We have spent hundreds of thousands of years evolving as humans living in intimate proximity with nature: its grandeur, beauty, diversity, complexity, and mystery,” Presti said in an email. “A love of nature is undoubtedly hardwired into our biology. Biophilia.”

Campus environmental science, policy and management, or ESPM, doctoral candidate Jesse Williamson noted that nature is “universally therapeutic” because of this essentialized human connection to the outdoors. Physically engaging with the environment, especially natural light, decreases blood pressure, strengthens the cardiovascular and immune systems, lowers the risk of diabetes and lessens stress, said campus ESPM associate professor Alastair Iles.

Iles noted that American cities are often planned without prioritizing green spaces, reducing urban landscapes to concrete and asphalt. This complicates access to the outdoors, making it more difficult to gain natural exposure on a daily basis.

“This school is a concrete jungle,” Aranda said. “We’re far from nature, so we need to be all the more intentional about that. If you can’t make it outside or maybe there isn’t some green or nature right outside, we can even find pictures; those mimic some of those same neural responses.”

Ingraining nature into the urban lifestyle is critical for psychological and physiological health, Aranda emphasized. However, Williamson noted that access to green spaces is not equal — race and income are tied to outdoor access in cities.

Bay Area neighborhoods of color have disproportionately lower access to parks and tree coverage, Iles said. These communities were established “in the shadow of freeways” with heavy traffic and air pollution, Williamson added.

As a result, this generated negative public health outcomes in addition to being precluded from the psychological benefits of outdoor activities, Iles noted.

“It’s a social justice and access issue,” Williamson said. “Environmental justice is not just disproportionate exposure to environmental toxins and hazards; it’s also a disproportionate lack of access to environmental benefits and goods.”

As a result, access to green spaces and their resulting mental and physical health benefits is not only an individualized issue but a social issue, according to Williamson. For instance, people of color may feel excluded from the outdoors, Iles noted, as activities like visiting national parks can be viewed as “only for white people.”

Altogether, this makes “the intention” of finding natural spaces crucial, Aranda added.

“There is no hard or fast rule,” Aranda said. “Folks generally say 30 minutes outside a day, but from the psychological standpoint, my personal opinion is that every little bit counts.”

Having an indoor plant or a picture of one, urban gardening, walking in local streets or leisure at a park are all accessible ways of being in touch with nature, Aranda, Iles and Williamson said.

In Berkeley, Baskevitch enjoys sitting by streams or under redwoods in Live Oak and Codornices parks. Campus favorites include destressing in the green spaces near Strawberry Creek and the Valley Life Sciences Building; Karny recommends exploring the forest by the Berkeley Rose Garden, as well as hiking through Tilden Regional Park and the Fire Trails.

“One of my friends suggested we visit the redwood grove in the UC Berkeley botanic gardens, and lie down on the ground to rest and look up at the tree canopies. I found it unexpectedly refreshing,” Iles reminisced in an email. “During all the Zoom teaching I did last year, I wished I could quietly sneak back in and do it again, but the grove was closed for months. I’m looking forward to trying it again.”

Contact Katherine Shok at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @katherineshok.