Faculty Spotlight: Natural Environment Benefits

As technology has increasingly become a prominent part of everyday life, outdoor activities often take a backseat. Arguably, students spend more time viewing other’s experiences on Facebook, Instagram and other social media than they do creating their own. It’s been documented that heavy use of technology and social media are linked to increased depressive and anxiety symptoms. Taking a break from technology and spending time indoors may have mental health benefits as spending time participating in outdoor activities and natural environments have been linked to increased self-efficacy, mindfulness and concentration.1,2

Self-efficacy is an individual’s belief that they can complete a task or succeed. Unsurprisingly, a higher sense of self-efficacy may be a preventative factor against the negative mental health impact of stress and other stressors students may face over the summer. As students are accustomed to their performance being measured by academics throughout the school year, students may find increased self-efficacy from physical and leisurely activities, such as hiking, camping, swimming, volleyball, and other outdoor experiences and sports.

Similarly, mindfulness, which refers to an individual’s ability to be present in the moment, may also see a boost when in natural environments. The college environment requires constant multi-tasking and can keep students in a perpetual state of heightened arousal due to the flexibility required to perform well in multiple classes and extracurriculars.1 In comparison, natural environments allow for more sustained attention and self-directed attention to the individual’s own thoughts and feelings.1

Attentional restoration theory (ART) suggests that urban environments, such as college campuses, may induce cognitive fatigue, impacting students’ ability to concentrate.2 As natural environments are considered restorative due to the decrease in executive-based attention that they require, it is beneficial for students to take time away from technology and urban environments to explore the outdoors, with summer being the prime time for outdoor experiences.

Summer is the ideal time for students to reset, relax, and prepare for the next year of school. Some students will utilize this time to plan outdoor adventures and immerse themselves in restorative environments. However, it is important to reach out and promote the mental health benefits of outdoor activities and environments to students that either reside in urban environments or may not realize the mental health benefits of the outdoors. Fortunately, reaping the benefits of natural environments can be as easy as reading a book outdoors instead of indoors. For students and faculty residing in Seattle over the summer, although SPU is in an urban environment, Seattle has a natural abundance of outdoor opportunities with easy access to parks and water. Lastly, it’s important to benefit from the sunshine in Seattle while it lasts!

1Mutz, M. & Müller, J. (2016). Mental health benefits of outdoor adventures: Results from two pilot studies. Journal of Adolescence, 49, 105-114. doi: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2016.03.009

2 Pearson, D. G. & Craig, T. (2014). The great outdoors? Exploring the mental health benefits of natural environments. Frontiers in Psychology, 5(1178), 1-4. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01178

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