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Mental Health and Nature

8th July 2021

What is Mental Health?

First things first, and before we discuss the benefits of connecting with nature, it’s important for us to think about what mental health is. Mental health is a state of wellbeing where a person can realise their own potential, cope with day-to-day difficulties, work meaningfully and effectively, contribute to their community, and achieve. 1 Being mentally healthy is about being our best!

In our experience, often, the term ‘mental health’ is incorrectly used to describe the experience of problems or a deterioration in our mental health. It’s important for this to change. Like ‘physical health’, we all have ‘mental health’ and it’s important that we can look after it and protect it.

Now, on to Nature!

It may, or may not, surprise you to learn that contact with nature and green space has been associated with benefits to our mental health, particularly in terms of reducing our stress levels.2

It goes without saying that this past year has presented many challenges, particularly when it comes to the mental health of the nation. COVID-19 has been much more than a ‘day-to-day difficulty’, and we’ve been interested to learn that the instinct of many has been to implement coping strategies that involve nature. Research undertaken by the Mental Health Foundation showed that going for walks outside was one of our top pandemic coping strategies, and that 45% of us reported spending time in green space as vital for our mental health.3

So, because connecting with nature really matters, here are a few simple suggestions as to how we could all bring it into our lives a little bit more:

  • Schedule 'Nature Me Time'

Finding time for ‘me’ can feel incredibly difficult. It couldn’t be more important. We can feel selfish for taking time to ourselves but it’s important to remember that ‘me time’ gives our brains chance to reboot and can help problem solving, concentration and productivity.4 In essence, by doing this, we can gain more time to dedicate to others.

Ultimately, taking some time for ourselves everyday can help us feel less stressed and improve our relationships which will positively impact our mental health. We can start by scheduling as little as 10 minutes every week to spend some time in a garden, park, forest, beach, or anywhere in the countryside, and notice how we feel. Hopefully, the benefits we get from doing this will encourage us to build more ‘Nature Me Time’ into our schedule.

  • Notice Nature

Life can be busy, challenging, and overwhelming at times. We often forget to appreciate where we are. It’s important to allow ourselves time to find and feel grateful for the positives we enjoy.

Let’s practice being present and in the moment by taking the time to notice the world around us – the warmth of the sun on our face, the movement of the clouds, the birds singing, the bees buzzing, the butterflies fluttering, or the patter of raindrops (or hail in May!) against our windows.

  • Bring Nature Inside

If getting outside into the open countryside just isn’t possible, try getting an indoor plant or taking 5 minutes to look at photos of nature – because, amazingly, by doing these things, we can reduce our stress levels.5

Bringing nature inside, also refers to the ‘inside’ of us. Water is one of the most important naturally occurring resources to all living things. For us as humans, not having enough water in our bodies can potentially be life threatening. From a mental health perspective, dehydration can negatively impact our mood, energy levels and how alert we feel.6,7 One of the earliest signs of dehydration is fatigue. A simple way to look after our mental health and wellbeing is to stay hydrated and keep our water bottle topped up to ensure we’re drinking the recommended daily amounts.

Water can also be incorporated into our lives through imagery. In part, it’s thought that the benefit of doing this may be connected to something called fractals. Fractals are repeating patterns that are similar or identical. Studies have found that exposure to fractals can be associated with a reduction in stress and a sense of relaxation.8 So, by bringing some fractal imagery into our lives, we can make a positive difference.

  • Be Proactive and Protect Nature

The smallest acts of kindness really can make a difference. Giving to others makes us and other people feel good. Research suggests that acts of giving and kindness support positive mental health by creating positive feelings and a sense of self-worth and value.9 They also help us connect with others.

What better way to do this than by being kind to our planet? Ways to do this might include walking or cycling instead of driving, recycling, joining conservation groups, or planting and growing fruits, vegetables, plants, or trees.

Dr Libby Artingstall & Dr Sile McDaid, Co-Founders Wellbeing Through Sport


References:

  1. World Health Organisation. (2018) Mental health: strengthening our response. Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-strengthening-our-response
  2. Roe et al (2013). Green space and stress: evidence from cortisol measures in deprived urban communities. International journal of environmental research and public health, 10(9), 4086–4103. doi:10.3390/ijerph10094086
  3. Mental Health Foundation (2020). Resilience across the UK during the coronavirus pandemic. Available at: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/coronavirus/resilience-across-uk-coronavirus-pandemic
  4. Bourg Carter, S. (2012). Why You Shouldn’t Feel Guilty About Stealing A Little Time For Yourself. Making Time for Yourself Can Greatly Improve Your Relationships. Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/high-octane-women/201202/why-you-shouldnt-feel-guilty-about-stealing-little-time-yourself
  5. Van den Berg et al (2015). Autonomic Nervous System Responses to Viewing Green and Built Settings: Differentiating Between Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Activity. International journal of environmental research and public health, 12(12), 15860–15874. doi:10.3390/ijerph121215026
  6. European Food Safety Authority (EFSA. Scientific Opinion on Dietary Reference Values for water. EFSA Journal 2010; 8(3):1459
  7. Benton & Young. (2015) Do small differences in hydration status affect mood and mental performance? Nutrition Reviews 2015 Sep;73 Suppl 2:83-96
  8. Lambrou, P (2012). Fun with Fractals? Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/codesjoy/201209/fun-fractals
  9. NHS Choices. (2018). 5 steps to mental wellbeing. Available online. Accessed at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/learn-for-mental-wellbeing/