Using the outdoors to promote mental well-being
Nature was the theme of the UK Mental Health Awareness Week in May, and rightly so, because there is plenty of good research supporting the role nature plays in protecting and promoting the health of our bodies and minds. Our relationship with nature – how much we notice, think about, and appreciate our natural surroundings – is a critical factor in supporting good mental health and preventing distress. So profound is this impact that ‘ecotherapy’ – the practice of being in nature to boost growth and healing, especially mental health – is now a recognised well-being intervention. Ecotherapy, also referred to as green care, is an emergent concept from ecopsychology, a term originally coined by an American cultural historian, Theodore Roszak.
Psalm 8:3-4, which reads: ‘When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon, and the stars, which You have ordained, what is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him?’, readily comes to mind when thinking about the therapy of nature.
A recent Mental Health Foundation study showed that 45% of respondents in the UK reported that visiting green spaces helped them cope with the stress of the pandemic. The nurture from nature goes further, however, as those who notice and connect with nature are also known to derive other benefits.
Nature has various forms when it comes to mental well-being – from green spaces (parks, woodland, farms, fields, gardens or forests) to blue spaces (rivers, beaches or canals, waterfalls, and the blue sky), there is plenty to engage with. Even indoor plants, window boxes, and trees in urban areas count as nature with benefits for well-being. Amazingly, watching nature documentaries has also been shown to be good for our mental health.
Other simple ways to connect with nature include activities that involve using our senses to explore its beauty. Intentionally smelling flowers, listening to the sound of the sea or the flow of a river; indulgingly exploring the intricate beauty of elements of nature – the sky, pebbles, leaves, insects, and birds – are ways to do this. Walking in the woods whilst smelling the fresh forest air, and listening out for nature’s soundtracks from the chirping of the birds and rustling of dried leaves can also be therapeutic.
Engaging in creative activities in natural habitats, such as drawing or painting in the woods or on the beach; singing or dancing in green spaces, or even writing or journaling in the park are all means of deepening our connections.
Nurture by nature
Engaging with nature has been associated with reduced risk of mental health problems, feeling happier, improved life satisfaction and positive emotions, such as calmness, joy, improved concentration, and enhanced creativity. Specifically, being in a green space has been linked to less anxiety, fewer symptoms of depression, lower stress levels, and improved ability to connect with other people. Spending time in nature is known to help children with attention problems to think more clearly. The benefits derived from exercise, such as walking or running, seem to be boosted when done in natural environments rather than indoors. Apparently, there is something about being outdoors in nature that has a beneficial effect on stress reduction, above and beyond what exercise alone might have produced.
The reasons why spending time in nature has these effects on us are complex, and are still being understood. The social contact, physical exercise, and exposure to natural light all seem to play a part. Vitamin D derived from natural sunlight has also been associated with regulating moods.
Recreating outdoors indoors
If nature has such profound benefits on mental well-being, how about making the effort to recreate the outdoors in your living and work areas? What can you do? An aquarium or artificial fountain at home or in the office; potted plants, paintings of wildlife, and scents of the outdoors can have enhancing effects. A simple, but profoundly beneficial activity that can be overlooked is decluttering our living areas to create a sense of space and light.
You can also bring nature indoors by listening to audio and video recordings of nature on the television and online. Listening to recordings of nature’s sounds on headphones can be soothing and calming.
I am interested in hearing how you engage with nature. Do you have a sweet spot you go to, like I do? Let’s hear from you by email – firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by Dr T. Ayodele Ajayi