Using the outdoors to promote mental well-being

Nurture by Nature

Nature was the theme of the UK mental health awareness week in May, and that rightly so.  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.

The scripture in Psalms 8:3-4 “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 in 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 in coping with the stress of the pandemic. The nurture from nature however goes further as those who notice and connect with nature are also known to derive other benefits.

Which nature?

Nature has a varied definition when it comes to mental well-being. From green spaces such as parks, woodland, farms, fields, gardens, or forests; to blue spaces like rivers, beaches or canals, waterfalls, and the blue sky; there is plenty to engage with. Even indoor plants or window boxes of flowers; and trees in urban areas count as nature with benefits on 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 several of 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 natures 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 depression symptoms, and lower stress levels and our ability to connect with other people. Spending time in nature is known to help children with attention problems think more clearly. Other benefits include increased physical activity and better physical health. The benefits derived from exercise such as walking or running seems to be boosted when done in natural environments rather than indoors. This has been linked to reducing feelings of anger, fatigue and sadness. Apparently, there is something about being 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 still being understood. Social contact, physical exercise, contact with natural light seem to have parts to play. Vitamin D derived from exposure to sunlight has been associated with regulating mood.

Recreating Outdoors indoors

If the benefits of nature are so profound on mental wellbeing, how about making effort to recreate the outdoors in your living and work area? What can you do? An aquarium or artificial fountain at home or in the office; potted plants, paintings of wildlife and scents of outdoor can have enhancing effects. A simple, but profoundly beneficial one that can be overlooked is decluttering to create the sense of space and light in our living areas.

You can also bring nature indoors by listening to audio and video recordings of nature on Television and online. Listening to recordings of nature’s sound 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 like I do? Let’s hear from you by email – tripartcare@gmail.com