American Word Logo An American University student-run magazine since 1999

Cultivating Self-Care

The relationship between mental health and time spent in nature

By Kimberly Cataudella | 5/4/17 12:25pm | Updated 5/4/17 12:25pm
Nicolla Etzion / American Word Magazine

If you’re reading this article from the halogen light of your dusty desk lamp, you may want to reconsider. Now that we’re out of our winter hibernations and the sun is shining warmly, bring this issue of American Word out on the quad or amphitheatre, and take in some fresh air. After all, it’s good for you. 

Spending time outdoors can actually help clear your head and manage stress – and there’s scientific evidence to back it up. 

Dr. Jesse Meiller, environmental toxicologist and professor of environmental health at American University, explained, “The amount of time spent outside is directly correlated with your ability to handle different stresses, and that can translate to your ability to handle depression or to avoid having depression.” Dr. Meiller also said that people who have ADD or ADHD may show fewer symptoms when they spend more time outdoors.

Dr. Natalie Rusch, licensed psychologist and assistant director for outreach and consultation at AU’s Counseling Center, said, “The top three most common presenting concerns for students were anxiety, depression, and stress.” College can be particularly stressful for many students. Academic demands, balancing social and work responsibilities, relationship concerns and living far from home are just a few stressors that students may face, Dr. Rusch said. Stress is a common concern for students who come to the Counseling Center, and the outdoors are a valid way of coping.

“You can’t disagree with all those scientific studies that say ‘being outside is good for you,’ unless you’re allergic to the sun,” Noa Banayan, student president of AU’s community garden, said with a laugh. The community garden, tucked between the tennis courts and Leonard Hall, houses raised beds of fruits and vegetables year-round, and it is maintained by AU’s facilities management with help from student volunteers. 

Banayan regularly spends her Saturday mornings volunteering in the garden to kick start productivity for the rest of the weekend. “It feels fantastic to do something good for a small plot of the earth, and it motivates me to work hard throughout the rest of the day on my assignments for classes,” said Banayan.

You don’t even need to get involved with AU’s garden to get outdoors. When your school is a certified arboretum (or, a garden made of trees), getting that quality outdoor time is easier than ever. Washington, D.C. is a large urban area where there’s not much green, although, for a city, we are fortunate enough to have a fair amount of trees, said Michelle Fish, AU’s senior groundskeeper and horticultural technician. There are roughly 3,050 trees on all of AU’s campuses including Main Campus, Spring Valley, Tenley, Washington College of Law and East Campus.

Of course, we as college students can’t be expected to spend all of our time soaking up the sun and hugging the more than 3,000 trees on campus. Filling your living space with plants is a way to receive lots of the anti-stress benefits of being outdoors without leaving your dorm room. Surrounding yourself with plants supplies the air with oxygen, which your brain needs to function, Dr. Meiller said. 

Spider plants, for example, will filter and remove certain contaminants from the air, so putting them in your dorm room or apartment can physically clean out the room. Plus, they don’t need too much sunlight or frequent watering, so they’ll still be alive after your weekend visit home when you forgot to ask your roommate to water them. Score!

If you want to get really fancy, you can grow some herbs on your windowsill and even incorporate them into your cooking. “I’ve had lots of success with small, leafy herbs, like basil, parsley, and lavender,” Banayan said. “They also smell really nice!” 

You can even try modeling your dorm room’s decor after SIS – a bold move, but actually incredibly beneficial. Have you ever noticed how most colors in SIS are natural earthtones, the walls are textured to feel like sand and plants can be found in almost every space? According to Hannah Debelius, the Office of Sustainability’s outreach and communications manager, the building was designed to make students and faculty feel as though they are outside. 

“There is a design principle called ‘biophilia’ that connects the built environment with natural elements in order to promote wellness for occupants,” said Debelius. SIS’s glass windows instead of an opaque ceiling allow sunlight to pour in and give an “outdoor” feel as well. The fountain near the Dav also mimics a babbling brook.

Debelius suggested that students bring elements of biophilic design into their own living spaces. “They can do this by having plants or photos of plants in their rooms, and make sure you don’t block out the daylight! Keep your blinds open to get as much sun as you can.” 

And while it might be difficult to bring a fountain into your room, try playing “nature sounds” on YouTube to really have the full, natural experience. 

Grow Your Own


Rosemary: This plant does well with frequent watering. Mix coffee grounds in with your soil. Open the window to prevent powdery mildew from forming on the leaves. Rosemary plants love sunshine!



Basil: Make sure that the soil is always moist. If flowers begin to grow, cut them off. Pick the leaves regularly to encourage growth. Basil plants want all the sunshine that they can get, so keep them on your windowsill in direct light.




Lavender: Plant your lavender in a roomy pot so it has lots of room to stretch its roots. Put some sand or pebbles at the bottom of the pot to encourage draining. Let the soil dry out before watering again. Put your lavender plant in a sunny, breezy spot.


Succulents: These little guys need plenty of water! Make sure the soil is always wet, so water them once a day. Pack ‘em up in the winter - they don’t handle the cold well.