Mental Health Awareness Week May 10-17th 2021.
How can connecting to nature help us with our mental health?
Far more is now understood about the benefits of spending time in nature, increasingly evidenced by scientific study, including improved nervous system function and heart conditions linked to high blood pressure and stress.
Many of us at some time struggle with low mood, anxiety and/or stress. These tendencies may have been exacerbated by the pandemic, with its constant newsfeed and first-hand experiences of death and illness. Our relaxation systems are struggling. Lockdown has also deprived us of some of our usual ways of managing our mood and stress levels, such as family, friends, fitness facilities and sports teams, shared public spaces and the buffer of travel to and from our work or schools.
While it is inevitable that we will feel stress at times and need to move, work or think fast, it is vital for our long-term physical and mental wellbeing that we give ourselves the opportunity to return to these calmer states. Being in nature is one of the quickest and most accessible ways we can move from one state to the other. A simple 2008 study found for example that participants performed considerably better in memory tests after a walk in nature than a walk down an urban street. Even in lockdown some form of nature has been relatively accessible to all, whether it be indoor plants, a small garden, urban parks and green spaces, or in a fully rural setting. Nature has the added benefit of being free of charge.
Connecting with Nature works at a number of levels for mental health.
- One of the most easily accessible benefits of being in nature is daylight. Sunlight is a key provider of vitamin D, vital for the development and maintenance of bones and muscles and can help fight pain, fatigue and depression.
- Daylight also kick starts our circadian rhythms, nature’s way of communicating with our bodies and minds an understanding of daytime v night-time, and the hormones associated with activity and rest. For example, if we experience difficulty sleeping, starting each day by going for a short walk, or simply stepping outside, begins a cycle which helps us to naturally wind down towards bedtime.
- Much is known about how (even in small amounts) regular exercise can boost mood and resilience to illness. It helps keep our weight down, and improves heart health and blood pressure. What we think about less is the idea of how movement can also be good for the mind. When we feel creatively or emotionally stuck in our personal lives or work, we feel a need to ‘move on’, get unstuck. When we move our bodies, while thinking or talking, our senses also shift a gear. This shift often gives us the nudge we need to bring fresh perspective to a problem.
- At times of stress our body involuntarily activates our ‘fight flight freeze’ response. One of the hormones associated with this state, cortisol, is known to have quite negative long-term effects, not to mention lowering mood and affecting sleep, leaving us irritable and struggling to concentrate. When this ‘fight flight freeze’ part of the brain is activated, it also shuts down the part of the brain we use for thinking and decision-making. Spending time in nature has been linked to stimulating ‘good’ hormones such as dopamine and serotonin. These create feelings of security and allow this decision-making part of our brain to be re-activated.
- Studies have also shown that simple exposure to the colour green, often associated with nature, has a distinct, positive effect on our minds. A 2012 study showed that looking at green foliage increased participants’ attention making them more able to concentrate. Indeed even people lifting green boxes rather than black ones felt the green ones to be lighter.
- Looking at objects at a distance is good for our eyes – even more so since Zoom and Microsoft team meetings have dominated our workplace. It is also good for our brains. Being around a mostly still landscape, where movement is less frequent and more predictable helps to bring ‘fight flight freeze’ responses into line, offering our busy and reactive minds a break from the ‘short term rush’ we get from emails, notifications on phone, Instagram feeds etc, which leave us feeling restless and irritable.
- Our most confident and creative selves operate most successfully from what in psychology is known as a ‘secure base’. In other words, when we feel calm we are capable of our best thinking. Take the word ‘grounded’ for example, or the expression ‘feet on the ground’. Both imply a sense of solidity, reminiscent of security. But how often do we actually really ‘feel’ the ground. There is something reassuringly constant about nature, the inevitability of the seasons and cycles of growth and the slow pace of change. Reconnecting ourselves with such ‘certainties’ can offer our minds stability at times when we can feel things are moving or changing too fast or we can’t see what’s round the corner.
- Finding ourselves in environments where change is slow, but inevitable, and where views may have been the same for decades or even centuries can also help to give us perspective on our problems, ourselves and our lives.
- Observing the interconnectedness of nature and our own part in it can help at times when we feel lonely or disconnected. Respondents to surveys returning from even a short time spent in nature report feelings of being part of a greater whole, less alone, experience feeling less selfish motives and a sense of being here for a bigger purpose.
- The natural environment promotes emotional regulation, helping to reduce irritability with others and better manage relationships.
What place does it have in our professional lives.
As well as relying on our support networks and HR depts, we have a responsibility to ourselves to stay well. Many workplaces have ethical codes of conduct which emphasise self-care, and the pandemic has made doing this more difficult. Studies have shown that 20 minutes in nature (it is seemingly not the amount of time but feelings of connection to nature which count), be it in a garden, an urban park or a more rural setting, can bring immediate positive effects for our wellbeing.
Some ideas/tips for helping to feel the benefits of nature
- Set aside 20 minutes, longer if possible, ideally at the start of the day.
- If possible, leave your phone behind, or simply turn off notifications while you are outside.
- Start by noticing how you are feeling as you walk towards a spot in nature. Connect with how your body and mind feel, what is your ‘emotional weather’?
- Take slow, deliberate breaths through the nose and as far into the lungs as possible to a count of 4 and release slowly again to the count of 4. Do this 5 times.
- If possible, find a quiet spot.
- Stand or sit still for around 10 minutes, resisting the temptation to walk anywhere, read anything, look at your phone or listen to music or a podcast. Just noticing how challenging this is to do is a useful guide to how hard it can be for our minds to relax.
- Take a few moments to concentrate on each of your senses. Begin to focus on what you can hear, close by and then further away eg birdsong, the wind. Next, become aware of your feet and what is beneath them, the temperature of the air, perhaps a breeze, sun or cold air on your skin. See if there are any particular smells you can connect to such as mown grass or damp earth. Lastly, see how many types of green you can see, shapes of leaf, light on water, what is still and what is moving. Really try to isolate each sense for a minute or two.
- Let your eyes look around and fall on something that particularly attracts your attention. A leaf, flower, stick, stone, blade of grass, feather. Pick it up or just look at it and wonder what it is that caught your eye. Smoothness, shape, colour, position? Keep it or replace with deliberate care.
- As you return home or to work, try and notice if you feel any changes in body or mind – are your shoulders a little more relaxed, are you walking at a slower pace, more aware of your feet or arm movements, perhaps you feel more warmly towards a colleague or partner?
- Once you find a good spot, perhaps keep returning to the same place over a period of time and begin to notice the subtle but definite changes around you.
- It may be that you can gradually introduce time outside into the working day, and time a difficult phone call or conversation to take place following this process, noticing if you manage it differently.
As with many ‘good ideas’ in life, it can sometimes seem an uphill struggle to fold them into our regular routines. However the accessibility of nature, combined with the immediate and considerable positive benefits from even short exposure to the natural world make it a very achievable goal.