Mental Health Awareness Week takes place on 10-16 May and this year’s theme is nature. During the pandemic many of us have taken great solace from being in nature. Our daily walks in green spaces have boosted our morale and helped us to cope. Here we take a closer look at how being in nature can be a tonic for mental health and wellbeing.
The impact of green spaces on mental health during the pandemic
Green spaces have been vital for our mental health during the pandemic, with people spending more time in nature. Research on the mental health impacts of the pandemic found that 45% of respondents identified walks outside as one of their top coping strategies. In addition, the researchers found that hits on websites showing webcam footage of wildlife increased by over 2000%.
Furthermore, a study of 3000 people in 2020 found green space use or access to green window views, was positively linked with mental health. These participants reported higher levels of self-esteem, life satisfaction, and subjective happiness. In addition, higher rates of access to green space were associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety and loneliness.
Being in nature: a tonic for mental health and wellbeing
The idea that our mental health is linked to our connections with the natural world is not a new one. Back in 1929 Sigmund Freud first wrote about the connection between the mind and the environment.
The concept of ‘ecopsychology’ emerged in the 1990’s. This highlighted the role our connection to nature plays in improving our interpersonal relationships and emotional wellbeing. As such, ecopsychology advocates treating patients outdoors, and emphasises the importance of taking walks in parks. Furthermore, research connects time spent in nature with improved mental health and wellbeing, and higher levels of resilience. This highlights the potential benefit of being in nature as a tonic for mental health and wellbeing.
Other research focusing on stress associated with military service provides further insight into the importance of nature-based interventions in building resilience.
And the benefits of walking and talking have been acknowledged in the various Rambling for Mental Health groups around the country. Here you can listen to BBC Sports presenter Clare Balding talking to such a group in Shrewsbury.
How is nature a tonic for mental health and wellbeing?
Research shows that connecting with nature:
- Stimulates parasympathetic nervous system arousal, generating positive emotions. This leads to a calming of the sympathetic nervous system arousal associated with feeling stressed.
- Provides opportunity for exercise which improves our health. And it can lead to better sleep and improved mood.
- Can reduce stress and anxiety associated with intrusive or racing thoughts. Being in nature helps to shift our spotlight of attention on to something other than our worries and concerns.
- Can improve our self-esteem. As our mood improves we start to feel better about ourselves and we get things into perspective.
- Can help us to meet our self-care goals.
- Reduces the risk of depression and improves mental wellbeing.
In addition to these key benefits of being in nature, doing so with other people can provide further benefits to our mental health.
Ways you can connect with nature during mental health awareness week
During mental health awareness week, The Mental Health Foundation (MHF) invite you to #ConnectWithNature and share what this means for you.
You might also like to:
- Experience nature: Take time to recognise and grow your connection with nature. Take a moment to notice and celebrate nature in your daily life. You might be surprised by what you notice!
- Share nature: Take a photo, video or sound recording and share what you’ve made to inspire others. Join the discussion on how you’re connecting with nature by using the hashtags #ConnectWithNature #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek
- Talk about nature: Use the MHF tips, school packs, research and policy guides to discuss in your family, school, workplace and community how you can find new ways to connect with nature in your local environment.
Connecting with nature over the longer term
Just as a puppy is for life not just for Christmas, nature is something you can invest in for life not just for mental health awareness week! You might want to think about ways to connect with nature on a regular basis:
Make time in your diary to be in nature on a regular basis. This might mean doing something as simple as sitting in a garden, walking in a park near to your home or further afield. You can find some beautiful nature walks here. Scheduling time is the key here, as we are more likely to take action if we plan it.
The fast pace of modern life can often make it difficult to slow down and actually appreciate the small things around us. Try noticing what you can see, perhaps the birds, plants or trees. Notice all sensations, attending to any sounds and smells, the warmth of the sun on your face or spots of rain. See if you can just be.
You may want to find a spot to sit and absorb your surroundings. Try using mindfulness to focus in on the present moment and really notice what is going on around you. Return to this spot at different times and see what you can notice as the weather or seasons change.
You might find that familiarising yourself with local flora and fauna will enhance your feelings of connection with nature.
To do this you will need to look closely at the plants around you to spot the details that distinguish them from others. Or try listening out for and learning about different birdsong.
Tracking wildlife can be another way of connecting deeply with the natural world around you. Noticing a set of tracks and wondering what animal created them. You might wonder when it was there, what it was doing, how fast it was moving and where it was going.
Keep a journal
This is a great way to keep track of the things you notice and provides opportunity to revisit your experiences. You might want to make sketches or take photos of trees or plants you have seen and include these in your journal.
Sharing your nature experiences with friends provides opportunity to reflect on and savour them. Remembering what you enjoyed, sharing a photo or telling others about your sit spot will reconnect you with the positive emotions you experienced when you were doing it.
Joining a walking group, a local conservation or bird watching group will provide more opportunities to share experiences in nature.
If it is hard for you to access green space, try opening up the natural world by tending a window box, following live webcams of birds nesting or watching nature shows.