Nature-Based Mindfulness

Spending time outdoors is invigorating, and we probably don’t do it as much as we would like to or as much as we should. Whether that be taking a fall hike through the mountain, spending a warm summer day by the water, or if you live in the city, walking up Mount Royal for a picnic by Beaver Lake, there’s an abundance of evidence suggesting that time spent in nature is good for us. Although it’s intuitive, there is data to demonstrate the links between the state of a society’s global mental health and wellbeing and distance to green spaces, waterfronts, even parks and private backyards1. Individual experiences of nature are associated with “increased positive affect, happiness and subjective wellbeing, positive social interactions, cohesion and engagement, a sense of meaning and purpose in life, improved manageability of life tasks and decreases in mental distress such as negative affect” 1. And I’m sure we can all relate to this on some level, thinking back to those precious moments of escape from busy city life into nature.

But is it equally true that mindfulness practiced in nature is more effective or beneficial to the user? Environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan wrote a book called “The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective” and in it they argue that yes, nature restores one’s ability to pay attention and thus tends to facilitate a mindfulness practice, and they call this idea the Attention Restoration Theory (ART).

A systematic review explored this question by examining studies in which “nature-based mindfulness” techniques were applied, and a subsequent meta-analysis conducted by the same authors was carried out to understand the effect size of these techniques as compared to non-nature-based mindfulness practices. In total, 25 studies were considered, capturing 2990 individuals, and the authors consistently found that nature provided a positive effect on mindfulness practices. They discussed theories as to why this was true: perhaps nature “softens” the attention allowing for the “letting go” process practiced in meditation sessions with regards to heavy emotions and troubling thoughts. Alternatively, nature might bring a more heightened sense of attention, increasing one’s presence with self and ability to return to an anchor point (breath, sensations, etc.) once the mind has wandered2.

Although a weekend getaway to the mountains sounds delightful, you don’t need to travel far to find nature. In Montreal, we’re lucky to live in a city with so many green spaces, in such close proximity to hiking trails of all kinds and wildlife conservations only a short drive away. So I invite you to go for a mindful walk the next time you feel like getting some fresh air. Take a few moments to become aware of the sounds, sights, and smells around you as you go, without seeking them intentionally, only listening, and seeing what is available to be experienced.

(1) Bratman, G. N., Anderson, C. B., Berman, M. G., Cochran, B., de Vries,S., Flanders, J.,…Daily, G. C. (2019). Nature and mental health: Anecosystem service perspective.Science Advances, 5,eaax0903.    
(2) Djernis D, Lerstrup I, Poulsen D, Stigsdotter U, Dahlgaard J, O’Toole M. A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Nature-Based Mindfulness: Effects of Moving Mindfulness Training into an Outdoor Natural Setting. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019;16(17):3202. Published 2019 Sep 2. doi:10.3390/ijerph16173202.

This article was written by Madison Le Gallee, a medical student at McGill University and member of the Mindful Medical Learner Team.

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