The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is nature. Connecting with nature is crucial for our mental wellbeing, and more and more of us have found solace in the great outdoors during the past year of life during the Covid-19 pandemic. The number of adults regularly visiting green and natural spaces in England increased from 49% at the start of the lockdowns in April 2020 to 62% in February 2021 (Natural England, 2020; 2021). In February this year, 64% of adults were taking more time to notice and engage with everyday nature, and 81% said that being in nature made them very happy (Natural England, 2021).
Often when we think of nature we think of green space, such as gardens, parks and woods, but there is a growing body of research into the mental health benefits of blue space too, including sea, rivers, lakes and even fountains. Research from the UK and abroad consistently shows that living close to green or blue space is associated with positive mental health outcomes including higher life satisfaction, happiness, self-worth and wellbeing, and lower stress and incidence of psychiatric disorders (Engemann et al., 2019; Gascon et al., 2017; Houlden et al., 2019; Pasanen et al., 2019; Wood et al., 2017). There is also evidence that spending leisure time in green or blue space, even just 20 minutes, is linked to immediate improvements in mood, wellbeing and self-esteem (Barton, Hine & Pretty, 2009; Vert et al., 2020). It’s even possible that immersing oneself in nature from indoors can be beneficial to mental health, as research has found that watching videos of nature scenes is more psychologically restorative than watching urban scenes (Mayer et al., 2009; Ulrich et al., 1991).
Personally, I’m a huge fan of spending time in nature, and I try to get outside for at least 30 minutes every day. Although this can be challenging during the winter months when daylight hours are minimal, I always feel so much better for it. It’s as if nature has a magical ability to simultaneously calm my mind and energise my body, and it always helps me to put my worries into perspective. So why is nature so beneficial for mental health?
It captures our attention
The first reason why spending time in nature is so good for our mental health is because nature captures our attention. This allows our minds to relax and replace negative thoughts and emotions with positive ones (Berto, 2014). Natural environments have been shown to promote physiological, emotional and attentional restoration far more than urban environments. I can relate to this, because whenever I’m outside in nature there is so much to take in; the bright sights of green grass, blossom, blue skies and yellow light, the sounds of birds chirping and trees swaying in the breeze, the smell of spring blooms and manure, and the sensation of my walking boots thick with mud and the sun warming my skin. As a result of this wonderful sensory overload, it’s hard to dwell on my worries for long. And every time I go outside the experience is slightly different, with a change in the weather or time of day affecting the way I perceive my surroundings. In this way, nature gives me perspective, because I realise how insignificant my problems are in the grand scheme of the natural world.
It improves our sleep
The next reason nature is so great for our mental health is because it helps to promote good sleep. During sleep our bodies and brains restore themselves, so sleeping well is crucial to mental wellbeing. Nature has a positive effect on our circadian rhythm, which is our body’s internal clock that governs our sleep and wake cycle. This is because natural light stops the production of melatonin, the hormone that makes us feel sleepy. So when we spend time outside in natural light we tend to feel more awake for the rest of the day. When it gets dark melatonin then gets released again, and this helps us to feel sleepy in the evening, so that we fall asleep at bedtime. However, if we spend all day indoors in a room with artificial light and don’t get outside, our bodies can become confused about what time of day it is, and this can interfere with our circadian rhythm. A lack of natural light can make us feel sleepy during the daytime and wakeful in the evening, which can impair our sleep.
It releases mood-boosting chemicals
Another reason why nature is so good for our mental health is that certain chemicals that are key to wellbeing are released when we spend time outside. Serotonin and vitamin D play an important role in mood, and a lack of them are often implicated in depression and seasonal affective disorder. Both of these chemicals are released when we expose our skin to sunlight, so they tend to be more abundant in the summer time. However, a certain amount of serotonin and vitamin D can penetrate cloud, so it’s still worth spending time outside even if it’s not a sunny day.
It encourages physical activity
Often when we spend time in nature we’re also being physically active, e.g. walking. Physical activity is well-established as being important for mental health, so it could be that this aspect of being outside in nature plays a part in its positive effects on wellbeing. One study of inpatients at a psychiatric hospital found that doing 40-60 minutes of Nordic walking immediately and significantly improved mood and reduced rumination (Brand et al., 2018). Other research has found that when healthy adults walked near blue space for 20 minutes their wellbeing and mood also improved immediately and significantly (Vert et al., 2020). There are several explanations for why physical activity is beneficial for mental health; these include the fact that exercise releases feel-good hormones such as endocannabinoids (Raichlen et al., 2013), it provides us with ‘time-out’ from our daily routines (Bahrke & Morgan, 1978) and it culminates in a sense of achievement (Bozoian, 1991).
The final reason why nature may be associated with mental health benefits is because spending time in nature is often a sociable activity. Social connection is well-established as being essential to mental health (Kawachi & Berkman, 2001), so perhaps it is this aspect that helps us to feel good when we go walking or for a picnic with our loved ones. Even if we go for a solo walk or jog we’re likely to see other people, and possibly wave or say hello to them, so perhaps even this low level of human interaction has a positive effect on our mental health.
How much nature do we need?
It’s wonderful that so many people have discovered the mental health benefits of nature over the past year, as it’s a free and readily accessible tool for almost everyone. Looking forward, I think that spending time in nature needs to be used as a way to prevent mental health issues, rather than waiting until they strike and then trying to fix them. The evidence suggests that spending at least two hours per week in nature is recommended for optimal mental wellbeing (White et al., 2019). This could just be a 20 minute walk in the park on your lunch break, six times per week, which seems like an achievable goal for the majority of people. If we’re able to get more than this, great, but if not we could still try to connect with nature from our homes in other ways, such as growing plants, learning about local wildlife and watching the sunset.
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