What does nature have to do with wellbeing?
With the rates of depression doubling during the pandemic, both mental health awareness and action feel important now more than ever. However, the theme of this year’s mental health awareness week may be surprising to some: what does connecting with nature have to do with mental health? Can dappled sunlight reflected on the gentle ripples of a pond really reach the dark depths of a depression? For others, this theme comes as no surprise at all. The poets certainly seemed to think so; Walt Whitman described nature as “the only permanent reliance for sanity”. Walks in nature have also been a major coping strategy for many during lockdown. Whilst at first this may have been exercise related or simply a lack of anything else to do, often people keep going outside because they notice how it makes them feel: perhaps a little better, about themselves and the world around them. Or as one of my research participants put it: “it’s deeply calming, it’s like my whole nervous system’s going ‘ahhhh’”. That’s the restorative effect of natural environments – right there in action.
As an environmental psychologist, connecting with nature interests me more than most and was the subject of my Master’s thesis. This blog focuses on five top tips I learned from my research and participants for getting the biggest boost for your wellbeing through connecting with nature. It also explores some of the reasons why nature can make us feel so good (and, importantly, when it might not).
- Bring nature to you
As Annie Dillard said, how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. Therefore, the biggest gains can be made through making many small changes to your immediate, everyday environment. When mapping happiness across the UK, location is one of the largest factors in mood – above and beyond activity or who you were with. Despite people reporting being happiest outside in green spaces, participants in the study only spent 7% of their time outside. You must start where you are; as most of us live in cities and spend our time inside looking at screens, this means bringing the outside in. Although digital nature is no match for the real thing, it has a surprisingly large effect on wellbeing. Multiple studies have shown that looking at pictures or watching videos of nature can have a measurable effect on everything from your mood, stress levels and sleep, which can have knock on consequences for both mental and physical health, even your ability to fight off cancer. In fact, this relaxing response to nature is so ingrained in our biology that pictures of nature can affect us, even when we have no conscious memory of seeing it (in passing through a hallway, for example).
Therefore, fill your house with nature. Change your backgrounds, your screensavers, your wall hangings, your fridge magnets to your favourite forest scenes. Watch nature documentaries and listen to the sounds of birds as you wake up, or of waterfalls as you fall asleep. Plant seeds, nurture a house plant, cook with freshest produce you can get hold of; scrub mud from potatoes, fillet fish, pick fresh herbs and inhale their different fragrances. Trees contain chemicals that have a measurable soothing effect on your nervous system and boost immune functioning. In fact, if you put them in a petri-dish with cancer cells, they’ll kill them right off. This is part of the fascinating science behind Shrin Reyku – the Japanese practice of forest bathing – but you can bring the forest to you simply by adding a couple of drops of pine or cypress oil to your bathtub. Engineer your environment to maximise the amount of nature you are exposed to simply by going through the motions of your daily routine.
2. Little and often
If you’re able to, go outside and spend time in natural places. By natural places I mean parks, gardens, fields, even a grass verge on the side of the road. Visit nature every day if you can. Research shows that even just a few minutes of nature exposure can reduce your heart rate, blood pressure and level of stress hormones. This study suggests that the optimum “dose” of nature is 30 minutes; in this window the physiological benefits start to plateau with the law of diminishing returns. Although there are benefits that can only be gained from extended immersion (see tip 3), 5 minutes a day will make a bigger difference to your day-to-day functioning and wellbeing.
The big caveat to these benefits, however, is safety; if you can, find somewhere you feel relatively safe and relaxed. If you have a dog phobia for example, your local park may not feel like a safe place. If your local park is littered with graffiti and smashed bottles, it may not feel like a safe place. If you don’t feel safe, nature will not wave its restorative wand. Furthermore, if you don’t have safe access to nature outdoors for whatever reason – don’t worry. You can still experience large benefits by focusing on tips 1 and 5. Even 5 minutes looking at a pot plant can increase your happiness and sense of connection to others.
3. Longer immersions
Whilst many benefits of nature restoration occur within this 30-minute window, there are larger, less tangible effects that accrue when you spend longer periods immersed in natural settings. Wilderness researcher David strayer calls this the “3-day effect” which has been linked to boosts in complex cognitive functions such as creativity and problem solving. Disengaging from the business of the modern world gives a sense of “getting away from it all”, of putting down your to do list, and gaining some perspective. This “being-away” is a key part of nature restoration theory; it allows your limited and often exhausted capacity for attention to relax and restore. Natural environments are not the only places that do this, but they are particularly good at it, not least because that’s where we spent 99.9% of our evolutionary history. In my research, one participant described it in this way: “I can walk into the landscape thinking urgh blah blah blah… and actually at some point that’s just not there you know [the problem] has processed. I haven’t ignored it, it’s just dissolved… into the landscape.” Neuroscience has shown that nature does exactly that; the area of the brain involved in worry and rumination quietens down after a walk in nature and blood flow gets redirected to areas involved in creativity, pleasure and empathy. Double win.
That sense of “getting away from it all” has been particularly challenging during the pandemic where many of us have been constrained to the same environment, day in, day out. I also recognize that ‘getting away from it all’ is often a luxury, and that whilst outdoor spaces usually don’t charge entry, that doesn’t mean they’re free or without cost. However, the benefits of “being away” are not linked to where you are but rather how you relate to your environment. That means it’s possible to generate a feeling of being away without going anywhere. You can get the same effect from switching up your daily routine – for example, if you spend all day looking at a screen, turning the screens off and doing something practical like drawing or doing a jigsaw puzzle. The key here is something called ‘soft-fascination’: find something that’s interesting enough to occupy your attention, but not so engaging you’re on the edge of your seat. This uses a different part of your brain and allows your attention to restore, but in a world of ever-increasing information and our attention being hijacked from all angles, it’s increasingly hard to find. Research participants described how a walk in the park could become a “mini-wilderness adventure” simply by changing their mindset and getting lost in the details – more on this below. Tip 5 below also explores the power of imagination to bring nature immersion to you.
4. Slow down, engage your senses
One of the major findings of my research is that practicing mindfulness – the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, non-judgmentally and in the present moment – enhances the restorative effects of being in nature. For those who find mindfulness difficult, the good news is that practicing it in nature lowers the bar to entry; nature naturally grabs our attention, paying attention to nature boosts it’s relaxing effect and when we’re relaxed it’s easier to practice mindfulness. Watch a child playing in nature and you will see mindful states arise easily and spontaneously. We can re-connect with this child-like curiosity as adults, but how?
Firstly, remove distractions. Talking or texting on your phone whilst being in nature mitigates its relaxing effect. Switch your phone off, or better still, leave it at home. Secondly, try walking alone sometimes. Walking with friends is great for boosting social connection – also really important for wellbeing – but walking alone allows you to engage in nature in a slower, more reflective way, that, ironically, can boost your sense of connection to others, even when they’re not there. Again, safety here is paramount. If you don’t feel safe walking alone in your local green space for whatever reason, then you could experiment walking with a friend in periods of silence and then discussing what you noticed or enjoyed about the walk (a savouring technique covered in tip 5). Thirdly, slow down. Walking fast is great when you feel agitated and need to get some energy out of your system, but to really get the benefits from nature the slower the better. Slowing down allows you to really engage your senses, as one participant eloquently describes: “it never occurred to me to just be really aware of what I’m walking on, of what I’m looking at, of how it feels in my body, of all the information that’s arriving through my senses. As soon as you have a little flavour of that it’s like ‘woah this is sensory overloaded!’ so I need to slow right down… my whole relationship with nature completely changed through that”. My experience echoes this: the process of learning to pay attention in nature is totally transformative.
Our senses evolved in wild places and are delicately attuned to natural stimuli: our eyes can see more shades of green than any other colour; our ears are most sensitive to the particular frequency of bird song; our eyes perceive the landscape in the same fractal pattern as those found in nature. Seek out these patterns and study them – the branching of a tree, the veins of a leaf, the barbs of a feather. Take in the sounds with your ears – the flow of water, the rustle of leaves, the chirping of black birds. Take in the smells through your nose – the musk of leaf litter, the resin of pine, the freshness of heavy rain. Take in the textures with your touch – the cold rush of a spring, the undulations of bark, the soft velvet of a dogs ears. Take in the tastes with your tongue – forage wild garlic, drink from a highland stream, even savour the crunch of a lunchtime apple at your desk. The philosopher Immanuel Kant prized reason over anything else, but admitted that “all our knowledge begins with the senses”. Nature is a great place to strip everything back and reconnect with our innate systems of knowing. Furthermore, the positive feedback loop that paying attention to nature creates can take restoration to the next level.
5. Savour and remember
By choosing how and what you pay attention to, you choose how you spend your life and shape who you are. The more you pay attention to something, the more likely it is to be consolidated as a memory, along with any emotions associated with it, positive or negative. Therefore, it pays to focus your attention on the good stuff. You can savour time spent in nature by taking pictures, talking to friends about it, writing about it in a journal, drawing it, painting it, making music about it or simply really appreciating your time there. When you think about or remember smelling the scent of a rose, your brain lights up as if you are actually smelling the scent of a rose. A rose, by any other name – real or imagined – really does smell as sweet, and the relaxation benefits come with it, even when there are no roses in sight. The sensory and memory centres of your brain are entwined in an ancient system; at the level of your emotional processing, the brain can’t tell the difference between memory, imagination and reality. Therefore, even if you can’t access nature, you can still access it’s positive effects by bringing it to mind and immersing yourself there for a while. Participants in my research described how having restricted access to nature during lockdown has taught them that “the imagination is enough to take me there”. You could even try one of the many nature-based meditations and visualisations out there – the more vivid your imaginary sensory landscape the better.
So, these are my top tips for maximising your wellbeing through connecting with nature. This comes with the caveat that these strategies will not work for everyone all the time, and that a walk in the park is by no means a substitute for professional mental health support or for addressing the underlying structural causes of mental ill-health in the first place (safe, easy and reliable access to green spaces being among them). Or, to quote Trainspotting, “It’s a shite state of affairs to be in, and no amount of fresh air is ever going to change that”. It’s also worth mentioning that most of the studies here are based on averages, and in every study, there are people for whom nature just doesn’t work. Maybe natural environments and new and unfamiliar to you, maybe you’ve had a bad experience in nature or perhaps, like Woody Allen, you love nature, you just don’t want any of it on you. The important thing here is that if lakes and rivers just don’t float your boat, there is nothing wrong with you. Finally, if you are going outside, remember to leave natural settings better than you found them. Unsurprisingly, green places lose their soothing charm when covered and litter and dog shit, and it’s not someone else’s responsibility to clean it up. Let’s keep our green spaces looking beautiful – and you never know, you might just help save someone’s life.
To summarise, I love this quote from Florence William’s book the nature fix:
“Go outside, often, sometimes in wild places. Bring friends or not. Breathe.”
The benefits of nature are underappreciated and often operate below our level of consciousness. I hope this blog has given you some motivation to find a little bit of nature wherever you are – on your screen, on your windowsill or outside – and to give it a try. However, only you can be the judge of how nature feels to you, so it’s time to get curious; what are your top tips for connecting with nature?
Share your thoughts using the hashtag #ConnectWithNature
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