Wellbeing and Nature

Nature’s Role in Mental Health

As next week is UK Mental Health Awareness week with a focus on nature and the environment, it seems like the perfect opportunity to go a little deeper with one of my favourite wellbeing topics – the positive effects of nature on mental health. Those positive emotions are something most of will have felt at some time, perhaps while appreciating a far reaching view or watching the sun set over an ocean. These moments connect us with the natural world in a way that lures us away from the busy and negative stories playing out in our minds and bring us back to what is real.

What’s more, this positive link between humans and nature is well-supported with plenty of research, especially in the field of environmental psychology (1) where some much-tested theories are playing a big role in influencing the way we design and spend time in outdoor spaces. Take the work of Richard Louv whose 2005 book ‘Last Child in the Woods’ introduced the concept of Nature Deficit Disorder, whereby he argued that most people, especially children, are spending less time outdoors leading to us feeling more separate from nature causing a reduced attention span and more negative moods. The research in this area has big implications for creating effective learning strategies for both children and adult learners.

One downside to so much research in one area is that it can be a little confusing to navigate and pick out what is useful to get started. So, my aim here to provide a ‘whistle-stop’ tour of some intervention ideas that might help you personally, or give you inspiration for what you could to do to promote the benefits of the nature connection on your teams at work.

So, how can nature boost your mental health?

Enjoying a spot of lunch next to Victoria Falls or watching the sunset on Kilimanjaro would no doubt be an amazing experience and, for most of us, be emotionally moving, but is not necessary to go to such extremes to enjoy a better connection with nature. Here are some more accessible ideas:

7 ways to a Connect with Nature

Forest Bathing is a Japanese practice (Shinrin-yoku) of relaxation backed by Japanese government research from the 1980’s, which demonstrated that two hours of forest bathing could reduce blood pressure, lower stress hormone (Cortisol) levels and improve concentration and memory (2) as well as optimising the nervous system and balancing heart conditions (3). Forest bathing is nothing more than walking in a woodland environment and taking the time to appreciate and focus on the natural world around you. Put another way; simply take an interest in your environment as you walk.

In fact, walking in any type of nature offers psychological benefits, in particular, on our cognitive function.  Studies have demonstrated an increased memory performance (4) after walking in nature, as well as improving the moods of people suffering from depression and giving them an increased motivation to get past their illness (5). Furthermore, there is also evidence demonstrating increased levels of attention, focus and concentration (6) (7) after walking.

Even just spending time outside has it benefits; for instance, it can lower the stress hormone cortisol (8) and if being outside drags you away from your tech devices then you stand a good chance of boosting your problem solving skills and creative abilities (9).

Spending some time working on your garden offers a whole host of health paybacks (10). Whether it is increased physical activity, a deeper connection with nature or an enhanced sense of mission and fulfilment, springtime really is the perfect opportunity to create your own sanctuary and space away from it all.

To gain even more benefit for your time outside how about keeping a Nature Journal? The purpose of the journal is to creatively record our encounters with nature, this may be writing a description of a view or how it made you feel at the time, or it might be a simple sketch of something that catches your eye, or glue in an item like a fallen leaf.

Perhaps consider doing some of your work outside if you have the opportunity. With so many people working from home at the moment, and as the weather improves, perhaps taking the laptop or some paperwork outside for part of the working day might be a good option, especially if you are wanting to reduce stress and boost creativity.

Planting houseplants. Not having a garden should not be a reason for not connecting with nature. Putting some houseplants in your home can still bring benefits of a better connection with nature. These plants can improve respiration, promote better mental health and improve cognitive function (11). 

There is one thing for sure; there is no shortage of research outlining the many benefits to human wellbeing from connecting with nature at any level. Whether it is increased happiness, improved emotional regulation, a deeper sense of self, effective interpersonal relationships or better heart health, there really is a good reason for everyone to value and nurture some form of connection with nature. I hope something in this blog has inspired you to get out there and use UK Mental Health Awareness week as a focus for improving your own connection with nature.

 

Written by Director Barrie Penrose, pictured here with his dog Remmy, doing their own Forest Bathing!
 
 
 
References:
  • Bell, P. A. et al. (1996) ‘Environmental psychology, 4th ed.’, Environmental psychology, 4th ed.
  • Richardson, M. et al. (2016) ‘30 days wild: Development and evaluation of a large-scale nature engagement campaign to improve well-being’, PLoS ONE.
  • Mao, G. X. et al. (2012) ‘Effects of short-term forest bathing on human health in a broad-leaved evergreen forest in Zhejiang Province, China’, Biomedical and Environmental Sciences.
  • Berman, M. G., Jonides, J. and Kaplan, S. (2008) ‘The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature’, Psychological Science.
  • Berman, M. G. et al. (2012) ‘Interacting with nature improves cognition and affect for individuals with depression’, Journal of Affective Disorders.
  • Hartig, T. and Mang, M. (1991) ‘Restorative effects of natural environment experiences’, Environment and Behavior.
  • Faber Taylor, A. and Kuo, F. E. (2009) ‘Children with attention deficits concentrate better after walk in the park’, Journal of Attention Disorders.
  • Gidlow, C. J. et al. (2016) ‘Natural environments and chronic stress measured by hair cortisol’, Landscape and Urban Planning.
  • Atchley, R. A., Strayer, D. L. and Atchley, P. (2012) ‘Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings’, PLoS ONE.
  • Scott, T. L., Masser, B. M. and Pachana, N. A. (2015) ‘Exploring the health and wellbeing benefits of gardening for older adults’, Ageing and Society.
  • Orwell, R. L. et al. (2004) ‘Removal of benzene by the indoor plant/substrate microcosm and implications for air quality’, Water, Air, and Soil Pollution.
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