Time in Nature and Your Mental Health

green grass near trees
Photo by Luis Dalvan on Pexels.com

The Japanese practice the art of “forest bathing,” which is spending time in nature to counteract stress and re-set the harried and overworked mind to shift perspective and support overall health. Being in nature has been shown to help foster a sense of overall wellbeing. Less clear is the role of “green space” in supporting those with severe persistent mental illness, like schizophrenia.

A new paper by Philip Henson and colleagues from Harvard, published in PLOS, examines the impact of green space on symptomatology in people with schizophrenia. The study is interesting as it leverages digital phenotyping to track an individual’s moment-to-moment movement throughout the day to explore how time spent close to green spaces relates to the degree of self-reported symptoms. The authors assessed geo-location from smartphones which were used to track exposure to green space.

The study sample included 26 healthy patients and 37 patients with schizophrenia. Participants were in their 30s with comparable numbers of males and females. The healthy participants were predominately Asian, while those with schizophrenia were primarily White. The study was conducted over three months.

Historical theories on schizophrenia point to a lack of green space as potentially being a contributory factor in the disease; past studies had to rely on proxy measures so these newer methods can provide more accurate assessments.

Findings showed differences between the two groups. Individuals with schizophrenia had lower exposure overall to green space compared to the control group. Interestingly, the data showed that there were dosage effects with higher exposure resulting in lower levels of symptoms of depression and anxiety in those with schizophrenia. This finding was not seen in the control group.

So what does this all mean? This study shows the value of adding digital phenotyping via GPS to the measurement arsenal to provide real-time data assessment, which is likely to be more accurate and more granular than self-report measures. This finding also points to the importance of time in green spaces for mental health as urban settings are more challenged in providing these amenities. Still, these results show the importance of these spaces to overall health. In individuals with schizophrenia, they reduce depression, anxiety, and psychosis which likely afford those with schizophrenia a higher quality of life. While this study didn’t have a demographically matched sample, future research leveraging digital phenotyping could shed light on the policy and clinical implications of time in green space as a therapeutic element supporting optimal mental health.

Thanks for reading – Trina
(Opinions are my own)

Henson P, Pearson JF, Keshavan M, Torous J (2020) Impact of dynamic greenspace exposure on symptomatology in individuals with schizophrenia. PLoS ONE 15(9): e0238498. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0238498

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