‘Being at one with nature’: Reflections on the importance of ‘nature’ upon our psychological well-being…
14.05.2021: As I sit down to write this week’s PIE blog as the Lead for Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE) at the national youth homeless charity: Centrepoint, I have just returned from walking my dog in my local park. Even though the weather was not kind with the rain soaking me and the dog this morning(!), I feel significantly better starting my day having had the opportunity to connect with nature and having had the space to reflect upon and connect with my natural environment. I particularly noticed the blossom on the trees and the bluebells in the wooded area as well as the birdsong and squirrels in the trees. I even spotted some of the now infamous parakeets in our patch of London this morning (c.f. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/jun/06/the-great-green-expansion-how-ring-necked-parakeets-took-over-london). Consequently, I have been reflecting more on this relationship between our psychological well-being and nature because this week is Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 and the theme highlighted is ‘nature’ (see video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdDioDtjkis).
Of course, whilst we might automatically think of ‘nature’ as just referring to wild plants, animals, landscapes and ecosystems rather than our human built environments, Bratman et al (2012) notes that nature exists on a spectrum from huge wildernesses untouched perhaps by human development all the way through to urban parks, small gardens and even our indoor plants. What is seemingly more important when we define ‘nature’ is our perceptions of and/or interactions with any stimuli from the natural world. This can even include listening to birdsong from our window, the herbs we may grow in our kitchen, being aware of the weather (a very British preoccupation!), looking at pictures of nature or even watching our national treasure Sir David Attenborough on a nature programme (Bratman et al, 2019; Richardson et al, 2015).
There is now extensive research that highlights the positive impact of nature on our mental health (see summary here: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/sites/default/files/MHAW21_NATURE%20REPORT_ENG_web.pdf). Research has shown that our psychological (and physical) well-being can be linked to how close we live to natural spaces, street trees or private gardens in both urban or rural settings (e.g. Jiricka-Pürrer et al, 2019; Kruize et al, 2020). For example, spending time in green spaces or around water (i.e. so called ‘blue spaces’) is associated with improved life satisfaction, an increase in happiness and a decrease in anxiety (McMahan & Estes, 2015). Moreover, Lackey et al (2019) found that having contact with nature increases our positive emotions, feelings of vitality and attention span whilst decreasing our experience of negative emotions and mental tiredness.
Research has also shown that specifically having time in a ‘serene’ landscape (i.e. a place of calm or silence such as by water or amongst trees) has a positive impact on our mental health (van den Bosch et al, 2015) and natural spaces are linked to lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress (Cox et al, 2017). However, even urban nature (e.g. indoor plants, street trees, private gardens and public parks) can improve our mental health by lowering levels of depression, anxiety and stress and increasing personal and neighbourhood well-being (Cox et al, 2017; Luck et al, 2011; McEwan et al, 2020). Because of this overwhelming evidence, mental health initiatives such as ‘green prescribing’ are now increasing. These nature-based interventions and activities (e.g. local walking groups, green gyms, community gardening and conservation projects) have improved participants level of social contact and inclusion as well as their sense of belonging and achievement, all of which have improved mental health (Bragg & Akins, 2016).
Psychologists in particular have examined why connecting with nature has such a positive impact on our psychological well-being or mental health (e.g. McEwan et al, 2016; Richardson, 2021). One suggestion for why nature is important is because it plays a role in balancing our different emotional systems of ‘Threat’, ‘Drive’ and ‘Contentment’. Our threat system is motivated by avoidance and can lead to feelings of anxiety through the release of adrenaline and cortisol, our drive system is motivated by our pursuit of goals and can lead to feelings of joy through the release of dopamine, and rest or relaxation through the release of opiates and oxytocin motivates our contentment system. Good mental health is arguably the result of the balance of these three systems. If our threat system is overactive, perhaps due to stress or hypervigilance, we can become anxious or depressed. However, having exposure to nature can generate positive emotions, which have a restorative calming effect and can result in better emotional resilience (Richardson et al, 2016) and a reduce in stress (e.g. Stress Reduction Theory: SRT; Ulrich et al, 1991). Of note, some researchers have even identified a biological mechanism by which plants influence our well-being — through their emission of ‘phytoncides’, which improve our immune function (Song et al, 2016).
As I was reading about the positive benefits of nature on our mental health this week, I found myself reflecting specifically on the past year during the UK COVID-19 lockdown. A recent survey by the Mental Health Foundation (2021) found that 73% of UK adults surveyed reported that connecting with nature had been important in managing their mental health during the pandemic and whilst lockdown restrictions had had a negative consequence on respondents’ mental health, contact with nature had been a vital coping strategy (Soga et al, 2020). I would certainly agree that my daily walks with the dog and family; exploring my local area (and actually discovering lots of new local places!) have been so valuable in allowing me to manage the challenges of living within the restrictions and not being able to do many of my usual activities or visit my friends and family. This simple connection to outside natural spaces had been an ‘escape’ and an opportunity to reconnect with the simple pleasures of the natural world, which were actually surprisingly abundant even when living in London! Moreover, taking a walk up my local hill and viewing the city from afar on reflection had not just been a ‘nice view’ but has also helped me keep a sense of perspective, vital to my mental health, as well as helping keep me active whilst working at home and improving my physical health in getting up the hill in the first place! Moreover, during lockdown I think the outside natural world has been especially important, as it has been perhaps the only opportunity many of us have had to meet another person whilst remaining physically distance from them in order to reduce viral transmission. Interestingly though, even pre-pandemic many researchers had highlighted that nature, particularly urban spaces, provides people with an opportunity for social connection that is free from many of the usual distractions of modern life (Cheesbrough et al, 2019; Hordyk et al, 2015; O’Brien et al, 2014; Rugel et al, 2019).
Consequently, if spending time in nature has such a positive impact on our mental health and psychological well-being, then how much time is ‘enough’? Although some research has highlighted that an ideal weekly ‘dose’ of nature should be around two hours (e.g. White et al, 2019), ‘time’ alone is actually not the most crucial factor (Martin et al, 2020; Richardson et al, 2020). Instead, it is the degree of ‘connectedness’ we feel with nature that may actually be more important and therefore it is the quality of that relationship not necessarily the quantity. Even taking 5 minutes to drink a cup of tea in our garden will have a positive effect if we use that time to notice and engage in our surroundings. We do not have to be taking long hikes in the countryside at the weekend to feel the benefits of nature thank goodness (although my dog would probably love that!). The key is to prioritise connecting with nature whenever we can even if that’s just an indoor plant on our desk or noticing the trees and how they change across the seasons along our street.
However, recognition is needed that not all nature is currently equally accessible, safe and welcoming to all and as per many issues is impacted by social or health inequalities (Mental Health Foundation, 2021). Of course, the recent lockdown was easier if you live in the countryside or have a private garden to relax in when you have to #StayAtHome compared to an individual living in a high-rise block of flats. This is why it is so important that local authorities preserve, maintain and keep open to all our public parks and green spaces. However, there remain some barriers to engaging in nature such as having limited time. Moreover, even when you have a local public open space, these can remain inaccessible due to physical disabilities or safety concerns. For example, the Mental Health Foundation (2021) noted that 19% of individuals with a long-term health condition or disability were unable to physically access nature whilst a quarter of women (26%) and almost a quarter of those from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds (23%) noted that fears around harassment and safety had effected their ability to engage in and enjoy nature in public spaces. Ensuring that our public green spaces are safe and equally accessible to all, and improving these where they are not, is therefore important because such access can reduce inequalities in psychological well-being between individuals of different socioeconomic statuses (Mitchell et al, 2015).
Specifically, with regard to young people such as those we support within Centrepoint, there is some research to suggest that young people in the current generation also sadly appear to be less connected with nature (i.e. the ‘teenage dip’), which begins around the age of 10 and doesn’t improve until the early thirties (Richardson et al, 2019). This may be a result of the increased ‘screen-time’ that young people now have (e.g. mobile phones, laptops, gaming systems) both for educational and social activities but may also be a lack of enjoyment or connection gained from being with nature (Passmore et al, 2020; Mental Health Foundation, 2021). Nevertheless, promoting young people’s connection with nature is important, as research has indicated that adolescents who perceive connection with nature as important have been found to have better psychological well-being than those who do not (Capaldi et al, 2014; Martin et al, 2020). Consequently, within Centrepoint whilst continuing our programme of improvements to the physical environment of our services, we must not forget the outdoor spaces, courtyards and gardens (or considering indoor plants if outdoor spaces are lacking). Moreover, we need to be promoting the use of our outdoor spaces with young people as much as possible, including the provision of structured activities (e.g. our Barnsley young people allotment project) and events such as BBQ’s (O’Brien et al, 2014) as well enabling access for regular informal use by staff and young people as much as possible.
So how can we ‘connect’ better with nature to improve our psychological well-being? There are some great tips from the Mental Health Foundation (2021) here: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week/tips. In summary, suggestions include looking out for nature wherever we are. We might not have a wide open rural landscape nearby that we can easily get out to visit, but perhaps we have some plants in our home (I certainly have gained a few during lockdown!) or we can open our window to hear the bird’s evensong at the end of the day. What is important is whatever nature we have around us we try to connect with it using all our senses in that present moment. Psychologists often suggest ‘mindfulness’ as an approach to help us with our mental health noting what is key with this or any type of meditation is that we are focused on the present moment, rather than worrying about what has gone before or what we still have to do in the future. Therefore, what do we see, hear, smell or can even touch from the nature around us? Taking a moment to notice this creates that valuable connection. In addition, combining nature with exercise or even with creative activities is helpful, as both improve our psychological wellbeing and/or physical health. Moreover, taking care of nature whether that is our garden or even just remembering to water an indoor plant, brings out positive emotions such as a sense of nurturing or caring for something as well as a sense of achievement.
Consequently, as per the suggestion of Mental Health Awareness week this week, I am going to spend more time in the coming weeks noticing the nature around me and my challenge to the readers of this blog is to do similar. Whilst it will be wonderful to have the opportunity to visit family and friends outside of London in the countryside or at the coast as the lockdown restrictions ease in the UK over the coming weeks, my day to day psychological well-being will be mostly helped by connecting with the opportunities within nature that are already around me. Whether this be the local park, my small garden in London or even my increasing number of indoor plants (!), tuning in and connecting to this in that moment is key. As per the opening picture of this blog, which is a nice visual representation of this point, human beings are actually part of the natural world. Whilst as a species in many places of the world we have perhaps moved away from this by creating urban spaces disconnected from the natural world, we are part of the great biodiversity of the earth and we rely on the natural world for not just our individual psychological well-being but also for our collective survival. Perhaps connecting more with nature may help us to realise this and make wider system changes to preserve our natural world for many generations to come…