The Role of the Great Outdoors in Treating Depression and Anxiety

Back to Nature

March 1, 2020

My struggle with depression and anxiety had produced an incapacitating insomnia that began to rule my life. The energy and productivity I once enjoyed had departed and my days were dominated by an overwhelming gloom. I had tried everything the world had to offer for relief, but nothing worked. Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of the story. Through a process that includes looking for the actual causes of my illness, I was able to incorporate life-giving principle into my daily routine and transform my life.

Every passing year the statistics on depression grow more and more alarming:

  • Depression is now the leading cause of disability worldwide. [i]
  • In excess of 264 million people suffer with depression globally. [ii]
  • Around seven percent of all adult Americans have experienced major depression within the last year. [iii]
  • Two thirds of those experiencing depression in the United States are undiagnosed. [iv]

When the diagnosis does come, the recommended course of action is very predictable - a prescription for an antidepressant and some counseling. In the U.S., approximately five percent of men and 13 percent of women currently use an antidepressant to gain relief from depression. [v] These medications do often result in relief of symptoms, but have they really addressed the underlying problem? Probably not.  

As one who has suffered with depression for much of my life, I am pleased to tell you that the underlying causes of depression can be found. The Nedley Depression and Anxiety Recovery Program is designed to do just that. Once the true sources are identified, steps can be taken to eliminate them. The beauty of this program is that it utilizes simple therapies well within reach of just about everyone. One of the modalities we recommend for gaining victory over depression and anxiety is exposure to nature.

woman climbing boulders in a mountain range

There is something about beautiful, natural environments that draw us. Rural and urban dwellers alike desire to “get away” for a few minutes, hours, days, or maybe even weeks to enjoy the restorative properties of nature and the outdoors. Barring some unfortunate mishap, we generally return from the adventure feeling better.

Naturalist John Muir was a man that loved the outdoors, especially the mountains.

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. John Muir

I think Muir had it right. Moreover, the scientific community now agrees with him. Getting out into green areas bathed with fresh air and sunshine provides therapeutic and preventive qualities - especially for those who struggle mentally. People burdened with stress and a gloomy mood can greatly benefit from the simple elements nature provides. [vi]

Due to where we live, getting into nature may be easier for some than for others. You may have heard that urban settings are not as healthy as rural settings. There is in fact substantial evidence to indicate that this is true. [vi] However, urban dwellers can take steps to safeguard the minds of their family members. Simply being intentional about providing time for exposure to the parks and other green areas in cities will promote better mental health. [vii] In addition, being wise about what is allowed on electronic screens will have an influence. Replace video games or other stimulating programming on the living room TV with tranquil nature scenes of beautiful mountains, flowing streams, birds, and animals. [viii] This will help everyone deal more positively with the stressors of daily life.  

You see there is a huge difference in the type of fascination required by nature as opposed to a video game or some other super-active television program. Nature is considered to be a “soft fascination” that brings about restoration by allowing contemplation and an active mind. On the other hand that shoot-‘em-up television program is all-engrossing and allows for no thoughts on a deeper level. [viii]

“Do the best you can under the circumstances you have.”

Those who live in cities and suburbs do have options for seeking nature, but realistically it is more work than for those how live in the country right among the trees and singing birds. If you live in the city, don’t let this fact discourage you. An important principle to remember is to do the best you can under the circumstances you have. Choosing wisely where you live is an example. Finding a home within walking distance of a park tends to be associated with people that are better adjusted mentally. [vii] A good long-term goal may be to pursue a home in the country. This will benefit all members of the family in many ways - especially children. Children raised in urban environments sustain a 200% higher risk of schizophrenia than children raised in rural areas. [iv]

sunlight coming in through trees

What is it about nature and daylight that heals the mind? There are certainly some physical factors to consider. When we are exposed to sunlight our bodies produce vitamin D, which assists in production of serotonin - a neurotransmitter that improves our mood. [viii] Daylight also helps to set our circadian rhythm or light-dark cycle and thus enables a good nights’ sleep. But daylight also has immediate effects. As soon as we are out in the natural light, we experience improvements in alertness, cognitive performance, and something known as affective responses. [viii] This simply means our general physiological state improves, including emotions and mood.

A positive affective state makes us more resilient and better at self-regulation. When this happens, we find it easier to fight those negative inclinations and feelings that bring about a distressed mood and harmful behaviors. [viii] Just walking in nature will help us have better self-regulation. This is accomplished through a bolstering of executive function. Executive functions are those high-level brain functions that allow us to think before acting, meet unexpected challenges, resist temptations, and stay focused. [x] Exposure to nature and daylight is an affordable and readily available tool for maintenance of self-regulation.

“People who partake of nature have higher life satisfaction and happiness.”

All of this data indicates that nature is a very powerful medicine. But just like any other medication, if we do not take it, it cannot help us. The dose we take does matter. Urban environments that are heavily built up and devoid of green spaces tend to produce populations with worse mental health. [xiii] These places will have more pollution, overcrowding, and stress. [vi] In essence, many urbanites are lacking their daily dose of nature. Those who partake of nature and recognize it as valuable and enjoyable will benefit through better social and community connectedness and score higher in life satisfaction and happiness. [vi]

To gain from the healing balm of nature does not require a huge investment of time. In fact, as little as 30 minutes of exposure to nature and daylight per week can assist in relieving depression and even alleviate high blood pressure. [xi] However, to get maximum benefit, daily exposure of 30 minutes to an hour is better.

Man in a red jacket in the forest looking upward

One of the best ways to meet your daily dose is to walk in the morning before breakfast. This will set the table for a productive day. If you are lucky enough to live in a climate with plenty of sunshine, count it as a bonus. However, many of us do not have that luxury. In this case, we have to get a bit tough and take the attitude of an overcomer. Don’t let that rainstorm at 6:00 AM discourage you from getting your exposure to nature. Put on a raincoat and a hat and get out there! You may get a bit damp, but you will walk the rest of that day knowing that you are able to master challenging circumstances. It is tempting to tell yourself, “Oh, I will just exercise indoors today, it’s just as good.” It’s not just as good. There are circumstances that necessitate indoor exercise, but for better relief of tension, anger, confusion, and depression and to foster a positive outlook, outdoor exercise is superior. [xii]

To a large extent the healing properties of nature are still a mystery to us. We understand that it can produce vitamin D and serotonin and reduce blood pressure, risk of diabetes and lower the stress hormone called cortisol. [xiii] But perhaps by looking at the bigger picture we can simply say we were created to be out in nature. When God created Adam and Eve, He placed them in a perfectly beautiful natural environment. Our world today is a far cry from the Edenic atmosphere they called home, but for those that diligently seek it, natural beauty is available. In fact, the first steps necessary to gain access to nature and relief from depression, anxiety, and myriad other stressors in life may be as close the other side of your own front door.    

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[i] Friedrich, M. (2017). Depression Is the Leading Cause of Disability Around the World. JAMA, 317(15), 1517. doi: 10.1001/jama.2017.3826

[ii] Depression. World Health Organization. March 22, 2018. Accessed Sept. 25, 2019.

[iii] Major Depression. National Institute of Mental Health. Accessed Sept. 25, 2019.

[iv] Williams, S., Chung, G., & Muennig, P. (2017). Undiagnosed depression: A community diagnosis. SSM - Population Health, 3, 633-638. doi: 10.1016/j.ssmph.2017.07.012

[v] National Center for Health Statistics. Health, United States, 2010. With special feature on death and dying. Table 95. Hyattsville, MD. 20011.

[vi] Cox, D., Shanahan, D., Hudson, H., Fuller, R., & Gaston, K. (2018). The impact of urbanisation on nature dose and the implications for human health. Landscape And Urban Planning, 179, 72-80. doi: 10.1016/j.landurbplan.2018.07.013

[vii] Wood, L., Hooper, P., Foster, S., & Bull, F. (2017). Public green spaces and positive mental health – investigating the relationship between access, quantity and types of parks and mental wellbeing. Health & Place, 48, 63-71. doi: 10.1016/j.healthplace.2017.09.002

[viii] Beute, F., & de Kort, Y. (2013). Salutogenic Effects of the Environment: Review of Health Protective Effects of Nature and Daylight. Applied Psychology: Health And Well-Being, 6(1), 67-95. doi: 10.1111/aphw.12019

[ix] Engemann, K., Pedersen, C., Arge, L., Tsirogiannis, C., Mortensen, P., & Svenning, J. (2019). Residential green space in childhood is associated with lower risk of psychiatric disorders from adolescence into adulthood. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, 116(11), 5188-5193. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1807504116

[x] Diamond, Adele. "Executive functions." Annual review of psychology 64 (2013): 135-168.

[xi] Shanahan, D., Bush, R., Gaston, K., Lin, B., Dean, J., Barber, E., & Fuller, R. (2016). Health Benefits from Nature Experiences Depend on Dose. Scientific Reports, 6(1). doi: 10.1038/srep28551  

[xii] Sarris, J., de Manincor, M., Hargraves, F., & Tsonis, J. (2019). Harnessing the Four Elements for Mental Health. Frontiers In Psychiatry, 10. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00256

[xiii] Twohig-Bennett, C., & Jones, A. (2018). The health benefits of the great outdoors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes. Environmental Research, 166, 628-637. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2018.06.030  

About the author


Nathan Hyde holds a BS in Biology from Central Washington University. He worked for 15 years in environmental testing and eight years in fisheries with both federal and state agencies. Nathan currently works for Nedley Health Solutions as a researcher, writer, and editor, as well as in various capacities during the residential Nedley Depression & Anxiety Recovery Program™. When Nathan isn’t working, he enjoys gardening, working with stone, and helping people understand God’s true character.