The Healing Power of Nature
On the magic and necessity of getting outdoors and in touch with nature
«I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery – air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy”.» - Sylvia Plath
This past year has been challenging for many of us. For people already suffering from poor mental health, Covid may have left them feeling more vulnerable than ever. Others, who may not have ever questioned their mental health before, have now found themselves struggling to cope with the effects of the ongoing pandemic and to adjust to their “new normal”.
When the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) researched the effects of the pandemic on people’s mental health, they discovered that many had turned to nature as a source of comfort. This study led them to choose “Nature and the Environment” as the theme for the 2021 Mental Health Awareness week .
According to the MHF, 45% of people felt that spending time in green spaces had been vital for their mental health during lockdown. The MHF also highlights that footage from wildlife webcams saw viewer traffic increase by over 2000% during the first lockdown. This goes to show just how quickly we turn to nature in tough times.
The importance of mental health is more evident now than ever before as studies have shown that symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression have been on the rise for decades. A YouGov poll conducted in 2018 found that 74% of people had felt so stressed in the previous year that they had felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.
One of the first studies to link nature and mental health was conducted in the 1960s in the US, and it showed that patients in hospitals with a view of nature recovered faster than those whose surroundings were more artificial.
Despite ongoing studies into the benefits of nature on our mental health, it seems that our disconnection with nature has only increased. According to the charity Rewilding Britain, “people in modern industrial societies spend 90% of their time indoors in artificial, temperature-controlled environments.”
Spending time in nature has many proven benefits: it reduces stress and anxiety levels, lowers blood pressure and helps improve our mood. There’s also a strong indication that it can increase life expectancy. Many of the communities with the highest longevity records are still very much in tune with their natural environment, such as the Okinawan community in Japan.
Even just evoking natural scenes can help us feel more relaxed. Picture a walk through a forest: the sun is high in the sky, there’s a gentle breeze and all around you the sound of birdsong is coming from the trees and the sky. For a moment, all your troubles seem far away, and the fresh air and quiet helps you make sense of the thoughts that have been running through your brain all week. Feeling more relaxed now, right? It's amazing how powerful even a few seconds of rest and disconnection from the noise and distraction of daily life can be.
So if spending time in nature is so good for us, how long exactly should we be spending in nature to feel it’s benefits? Well, a 2019 study conducted by the European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter found that we need to spend a minimum of 120 minutes a week in nature to truly feel its benefits. And that’s 120 minutes of enjoying nature on your terms, whether it's a nap in your garden or a wild swim in a river, or a stroll through the park or a hike in the wild. Connecting with nature is amazingly restorative mentally and physically.
Whilst this might sound like a straightforward boost to people's mental and physical health, for many, even 120 minutes is not an easy goal. Access to nature is highly unequal, and many groups of people including black and ethnic minorities, those with disabilities, and those from a low income background all experience barriers to enjoying nature. Research has shown that, on average, these groups are much less likely to live within easy access of a green space.
We know that a closer connection with nature improves our mental health, so we must start asking ourselves how we can bring nature back into everyone's lives, without leaving anyone behind. This requires funding, research and a good dose of awareness to ensure that access to nature is recognised as a fundamental human right for all.
Connecting with nature can take many forms, and any encounter is magical. A fox running down your street, stopping to look at you for a moment before it runs into the bushes. Happening upon an unsuspecting blackbird and having the chance to take a really good look at it up close before it flies off. A friendly neighbourhood squirrel scrambling up your leg thinking you’re just another tree (true story). The more chances we allow for nature to reach us in our everyday life, the more magical our lives become.