Hike in Santa Monica Mountains

Want Free Therapy? Try Nature

We know intuitively that getting outside is good for us. But how much time do we really spend appreciating green space, away from technology and to-do lists that so often pull us indoors? With more and more research unveiling nature’s powerful mental health benefits, lack of nature exposure may be costing us more than we realize. Maybe a powerful medicine for our mental ailments has been in front of us all along.

Your brain needs rest too

When we juggle a constant stream of attention-demanding tasks, our brain is strained and we feel distracted. The prefrontal cortex is primarily responsible – this brain area typically helps us plan and solve problems, but it easily becomes overloaded with a busy lifestyle. Research suggests that spending time in nature actually lowers brain activity in the prefrontal cortex. Even a short walk in a park can restore our concentration, improve memory capabilities, and bring us into a meditative state.

Additionally, this reduction in prefrontal cortex activity gives us mental room to be creative. You may have heard avid hikers report that mental chatter slows down and their best ideas flow in the outdoors. Indeed, one study demonstrated a 50% increase in creative problem-solving task performance after a wilderness backpacking trip.

Nature as medicine

Time in nature is a possible remedy for a wide spectrum of mental health challenges. A nature walk could reduce activation in brain areas associated with rumination, or negative self-reflective thinking – a predictor of mental illness. In another study, individuals with major depressive disorder experienced improved mood after walking in a natural environment. The benefits of nature are promising for reducing stress and anxiety, too. Walking among trees significantly reduces cortisol levels and relaxes the nervous system, while the same does not hold true for a city walk.

Healthcare providers have recognized the healing potential of the outdoors. Some doctors are already prescribing nature for their patients to treat everything from depression to ADHD. This typically includes working with the patient to locate nearby parks and specifying how many times they will visit the site each week. Wilderness therapy programs are also harnessing the healing powers of nature to assist people suffering from trauma and PTSD.

A little goes a long way

It turns out that you don’t need to summit a mountaintop or go for a week-long backpacking trip to reap the benefits of nature (though it wouldn’t hurt). In a study of UC Berkeley undergraduates, everyday nature experiences such as walking through a greener part of campus led to improved well-being. Research like this suggests that the most important thing is to appreciate the nature around you. Walking for 20 minutes in a woodsy area, sitting under a tree after class – simple acts like these can positively impact well-being. The caveat? It’s best if nature experiences are unplugged. You may not be maximizing the benefits for your brain if you’re distracted by your phone – remember, our brains need rest! Instead, take a few deep breaths and notice the sights and sounds around you.

Nature spots near UCLA

Whether you have five minutes or a whole weekend, there are many places near UCLA where you can get your nature fix. This can be a space for self-reflection, but it’s also a perfect chance to foster community. Research shows that a group walk in nature is just as beneficial for mental well-being as going alone, so don’t be afraid to invite friends.

If you have a favorite location or walk that’s not listed, leave a comment!

Walking trail in the dorm area

  • Take a short urban hike around campus: starting at Westwood Plaza and Sunset, go west on the dirt path along Charles E Young Dr N. Turn right on De Neve Dr. You’ll eventually pass Sunset Canyon Rec Center and the jane b semel HCI Community Garden. Turn right on Bellagio Dr, left on Sunset, and left on tree-lined Veteran Ave. Continue to the De Neve dorms to return back to the hill, or turn around and go back the way you came.
  • Carve out time to visit the Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Gardens. Soak up the benefits of this peaceful mini-forest by strolling along the paths or relaxing on a bench. There are also tables you can use for studying and meetings.
  • Check out Total Wellness Magazine’s post for inspiration on the best campus green spaces and how you can incorporate them into your daily schedule.
  • Hike at Will Rogers State Park, only 15 minutes by car or 35 minutes by bus from UCLA. 
  • Explore other nearby hiking areas in the Santa Monica Mountains, such as Temescal Canyon Park, Topanga State Park (Los Leones is a popular trail), or Malibu Creek State Park. 

Walking trail on Veteran Ave

Emily Short is a 4th year UCLA undergraduate majoring in Psychology and Economics. In addition to blogging for the MindWell Pod, she is a project coordinator for a research study in the Dieting, Stress, and Health Lab. You can also find her drinking tea, reading, and practicing yoga.

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