Busy urban environments have been associated with increased risk for mental health issues like anxiety and depression. But exposure to nature offers a salutogenic antidote.
A new brain imaging study published in Molecular Psychiatry demonstrates how spending time in natural settings can restore the mind by decreasing activity in the amygdala, a region linked to stress and fear responses.
Researchers in Germany had participants undergo fMRI brain scans while looking at emotional faces, both before and after a 1-hour walk. One group walked through a forested park, the other along a busy urban shopping street.
When rescanned after their walks, the nature walkers showed significantly reduced amygdala reactivity compared to their pre-walk scans. But in the urban walking group, amygdala activity remained unchanged.
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This decrease in amygdala engagement after nature exposure also occurred during subliminal face presentations that participants were unaware of.
The researchers speculate that time in natural environments may increase the brain's threshold for amygdala activation, thereby calming stress responses.
Since urban living raises risk for mental illness, designing cities with accessible green spaces could promote public mental health. For those with limited mobility, virtual reality simulations of natural settings might provide similar amygdala-calming effects.
By bringing the benefits of the outdoors inside, VR nature therapy could potentially decrease anxiety and stress for many. 🥽☀️🏝️