JOSE A. MORALES GARCIA
Professor and Researcher in Neurology, Complutense University of Madrid.
“I’m going to the country for the weekend to rest.” We have said it and heard it many times. People who, pressed by the big city, spend a few days in nature as a means of escape. We all know it works. A few days of rural relaxation and we return to our cities “with charged batteries”.
The concentration of people in urban centers is growing faster than desired. Currently, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and this number is expected to continue to grow. It is estimated that 7 out of 10 people in the world will live in large populations in 2050. Many of them will spend up to 90% of their stocks without leaving them.
City perks… but mental health risk
Living in the city has its advantages, but it also poses significant risks to mental health. In fact, mood disorders, anxiety or depression are up to 56% more common in urban settings than in rural settings.
Escapes to soothe the amygdala
But what is the brain mechanism that allows nature to change our perception of things? Part of the answer may lie in the amygdala.
This suggests a study from a few years ago: in stressful situations, the amygdala is more activated in city dwellers than in rural areas.
The amygdala is the area of the nervous system responsible for control of emotions and feelings. Logically, since it is in a privileged position that allows it to establish connections with a large part of the brain. One of these regions is the frontal lobe, which explains why the amygdala is involved in behavioral inhibition and decision making.
And in addition to those already mentioned, the amygdala is involved in other activities such as intake control – is responsible for the feeling of satiety-, fear and stress managementthe structuring of memories, the regulation of sexual behavior or the control of aggression.
But let’s not demonize the amygdala. After all, the essence of fear is survival, and this part of the brain helps us survive by avoiding dangerous situations. This is possible due to the fact that he is constantly reviewing the information that our senses provide us, discovering in the moment what can affect our survival (whether it is real or not). Once the threat is identified, it develops a response that moves us away from the risk and the likelihood of survival increases.
The benefits of a relaxing forest bath
But is it possible to act on the amygdala to avoid anxiety or stress? Pharmacologically yes, although science offers us another more economical, simple and ecological option: simple contact with nature.
A recent study showed that repeated exposure to natural environments has a positive effect on amygdala activity. Thus, people in frequent contact with nature have less activity in their amygdala in stressful situations.
Therefore, interacting with the environment is a way to improve mental health. The Japanese have a word for it: shinrin-yoku or forest baths.
Many other studies have reached the same conclusion. These show that contact with nature increases our sense of happiness and reduces mental anguishas it reduces negative emotions and stress.
It also gives us a greater capacity to manage daily tasks, improving the capacity of the so-called working memory, which allows us to temporary storage of information in the brain. To this must be added the improvement of cognitive function – attention, memory, orientation – in both adults and children, which improves their imagination, creativity and school performance.
Another advantage of going out into the countryside is that it’s an activity you can do alone. The consequence of this is that people who walk alone in nature are less prone to depression and stress.
Like any good treatment, contact with nature also requires a dose. Its mental health benefits are evident as long as it is for the right duration: at least half an hour and at least once a week.
In conclusion, exposure to nature reduces amygdala activity and has a beneficial effect on stress-related areas of the brain. This suggests that country walks buffer the harmful effects of city life. And in turn, it potentially acts as a preventive measure against the development of some mental disorders.
A green oasis that makes us happier
Leaving the city in search of vegetation and fresh air is not always within the power of everyone. In this sense we have an enemy: massive and uncontrolled urban sprawl, whose town planning plans do not envisage large green areas. Or if they do include them, it’s for decorative purposes without considering the benefits they might have on the mental state of their occupants.
In this regard, the impact of urban green spaces on mental health has been the subject of research for years. Many scientists point to the need to incorporate natural elements into our urban designs, considering the many benefits they bring to our psyche.
While we wait for our cities to go green, there is no other option but to take great care of our natural environment. It’s for our good: we don’t want to upset the amygdala.