Why is the environment good for mental health?

The environment has an important part to play in our mental health and overall wellbeing. Environmental psychologist Anju Sara Abraham speaks with Adithi Venkateswaran to explain why the environment is good for our mental health, the benefits of spending time amidst nature and ways to bring nature closer home.
Why is the environment good for mental health?

How would you describe the relationship between a person’s mental health and the environment?

I would describe it loosely as a 'give and take relationship'. Why? Because if we do not make the effort to bring in natural healing environments within our spaces, then there will not be a relationship with the said environment. The basic example of going for a walk, starts with taking the step of moving out of our personal space and venturing outside. To go on a hike, to go cycling around a park, to trek, to plant a tree, to purchase an indoor plant - all these actions require motivation and only the combination of perceived attitude and behavior will lead to the 'give and take relationship'. There are numerous theories that suggest a positive relationship between mental health and the environment and this has been seen from ancient times in history.

Various studies suggest that individuals often seek peace, silence and comfort in nature, especially during stressful times. What are the benefits that exposure to nature has on one’s mental health?

I would base this answer on Stephen and Rachel Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory (ART), (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989). This theory has been proven in many circumstances but a few studies call this a loose concept wherein the amount of stimulus is not verified and that acts as a gap in research. But as far as I have understood, restoration theory counts for the major part of understanding how mental health is connected with the environment. Experiencing nature is a natural feeling for humans. Modern civilization calls for urban green and breathing spaces within the cities, whereas our ancestors have lived amidst nature. The few articles below will help you gain some perspective into how the theory formulated by Kaplan and Kaplan have supported various design features as well as creating restorative environments for helping with mental health.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272494413000650

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/304109537_Effects_of_gardens_on_health_outcomes_theory_and_research

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/12761803_A_theory_of_supportive_design_for_healthcare_facilities

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0169204604001720

According to you, how much of a contributing factor is the environment to a person’s stress levels?

The environment contributes highly to a person’s stress levels. Like I mentioned previously, natural environments help individuals escape and restore. Weekend getaways, gardening, trekking, hiking, cycling, these activities are borne from the feeling of escaping away from reality and finding calm and solace in the environment. Too much of anything can be harmful. Similarly, too much of the environment is also not good for us.


Sounds like leaves rustling, chirping of the birds, waves lapping in the ocean, waterfall, etc. are good stimuli and can help in restoration. At the same time, construction sounds or high-decibel sounds of animals can affect the mental health since they can cause a rise in anxiety and stress levels. The adaptation-level theory (Helson, 1064) suggests that there is no conceivable amount of a certain stimulus level for humans and stimulation levels that can affect the perceived attention and behaviour of individuals differently. Therefore, we cannot quantify how much exposure to the environment is good or bad for an individual, but there is a large positive effect in terms of restoration for most individuals.

With regards to mental health, how much environmental exposure is considered healthy for an average individual? Would you recommend it as part of a daily routine?

This question is partly answered in the previous one. I would like to add that it is a very subjective question and answer. I myself would recommend for all individuals to have a certain amount of environmental exposure as part of a daily routine. Modern day life might not cater to this recommendation, but offices now are focusing on creating workspaces that include nature within its interior spaces and also providing outside views for the employees in the workspace.

Stephen Kellert identified biophilia, in a paper he co-wrote with Elizabeth Calabrese on ‘The Practice of Biophilic Design’, as “the inherent human inclination to affiliate with nature that even in the modern world continues to be critical to people’s physical and mental health and wellbeing.” Workplaces now promote mental health and bringing in natural elements into the workspace is the first step. Placing potted plants around the office area, giving large openable windows on the exterior walls, providing courtyards or skylights to bring in natural ventilation and light are all methods one can employ to ensure good mental and physical wellbeing within the office space. This is directly proportional to the employee satisfaction and productivity as this paper suggests:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/338111192_The_Impact_of_Biophilic_Design_on_Workers_Efficiency

It is critical to have some sort of environmental exposure for good mental health. Restorative environments not only affect mental health but it is crucial for our physical wellbeing as well.

What are the benefits of nature-based therapy as opposed to the conventional methods of therapy for mental illnesses?

Ayurveda, Homeopathy, Naturopathy etc. are examples of how nature-based therapies have helped humans. Even the most-common exercise in recent times, yoga, is a healing process based on the outdoors and stimulating the mind with nature. Yoga connects the human mind and body with nature and utilizes the natural environment.

Nature-based therapies do not have instant results like allopathy and modern medicine, but it helps in the long-term to be devoid of sickness and improve mental health.

Conventional methods of treating mental illness include counselling, pills, several kinds of therapies and various other methods. But there are places cropping up in India and elsewhere that focus on natural healing methods which include daily practice of yoga, meditation, nature-walks and Ayurveda treatments.

During the pandemic, stepping out has become a risk and challenge for many. How would you suggest we enjoy the benefits of nature to improve our mental state from the safety of our homes?

This has been a concern for myself and my family as well. Living in the city can have its perks, but at the same time during this pandemic it was a curse. One method I employed within the constraints of my flat was to firstly arrange my workstation close to a window. The natural daylight and ventilation was a relief to me during my work at this time compared to if I had been sitting elsewhere in the house. Another step I took was to purchase and take care of plants in my balcony area. I invested in a few easy maintenance plants and made the effort to water and take care of them daily. This turned out to be a great relief to me as I had to make the effort to step out onto the balcony and water the plants, which in turn helped me physically and mentally.

One thing I had suggested to my students was to get indoor plants and also watch nature inspired movies and documentaries. I believe that seeing green on screen is also restorative. I encouraged them to find movies or videos that showed beautiful landscapes and enjoy the scenes for a while during their breaks. Few students got back to me saying that this helped to a small extent as they found relief in looking at the landscapes even if they were not real.

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