Close your eyes and picture a dappled forest glade filled with birdsong. Imagine watching a sunset over a wide, green landscape or a meadow filled with wild flowers…feeling better?
Most of us do not need much persuasion to go out and enjoy nature. When we take a walk outside we immediately notice how much better we feel.
Many people have made a powerful reconnection with nature over the last year. In response to this the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week (10 – 16 May) is Nature and Wellbeing.
Our devotion to the natural world could be explained by the fascinating history of our evolution. According to Dr Alice Roberts, Anthropologist and presenter of BBC’s ‘The Incredible Human journey’, one of the theories explaining why we prefer the nature world is because the memory of this type of landscape was written into our unconscious in ancient days, and these memories are carried forward through the generations. For millions of years we were hunter gathers and farmers. Our evolutionary home is nature and this is where we belong.
If we start to think of the brain as an evolved organ responding to opportunities and constraints that existed in ancestral environments, we can then begin to understand how the natural environment triggers such positive feelings. Trees provided shelter, protection and shade, flowers signified that fruit was nearby, still lakes provided us with fish, the smell of the forest soil, which smells of mushrooms, suggests edible delights. None of this is threatening to us, instead it fills us with hope and inspiration.
The question then becomes: Can this intimate connection with nature actually help us heal from anxiety and depression? The overwhelming evidence is clearly saying that the answer is YES.
As the mental health charity Mind report in their article titled: Nature and Mental Health, exposure to the natural world can heal conditions such as depression, anxiety disorder and panic attacks. Nature offers us a safe space to get away from modern, commercialised living, where everything is based on economic value. Plants and animals don’t judge us for who we are. When we truly connect with nature we respect, appreciate and accept other beings for who and what they are in a less judgemental and more open minded way leading to a more harmonious community life.
By the same token, appreciating that there is a big world beyond ourselves can be really beneficial for our wellbeing. Dr. Nooshin Razani is a respected psychologist who has dedicated her career to improving mental health disorders through nature. She describes that within minutes of entering a space filled with nature your heart rate will slow, you breathe deeper and the stress hormone cortisol will start decreasing. She further explains that nature helps us experience the feeling called awe. Psychologists break down awe to mean a combination of surprise, happiness and wonder all at once. This is particularly helpful for people who have a tendency to ruminate over troubling issues. After people feel full of awe their focus turns from internal angst to external elation which helps to suppress feelings of anxiety and depression.
How long do you need to spend in nature to reap the benefits?
The answer to this question is still unknown, however, a recent study suggested 2 hours a week spent in nature is enough to have a positive effect on your happiness and wellbeing. This can be spread out throughout the week.
Since we know that nature is so therapeutic, how can we bring it into our lives?
Get out into Nature
The first way is obvious: get out into nature. Go for a hike in the woods, watch the sunset over the ocean or visit your local green park.
Bring Nature into Your Home
Another way you can bring nature into your life is to bring it into your home. Why not go out and brighten you home with some houseplants or cut flowers and position them directly into your immediate environment.
Did you know that doctors are now starting to prescribe gardening to people who suffer with mental health disorders like anxiety and depression (called Green Prescriptions)? Gardening is a genuine goldmine of positive feelings. Many books have been written about the remarkably therapeutic aspect of gardening. The action of digging into the Earth can be very grounding (pun most definitely intended!), particularly good for those who suffer from agitation or anxiety.
What about people who can’t access nature?
This will be a key part of Mental Health Awareness Week. Many people find it hard to access nature due to a lack of outside space or their geographical location. Mental Health Awareness Week will be used to launch new policy requests to enable greater access for people to nature. This can include making parks feel safer to use or planting more trees in our streets or asking developers to include plants and green spaces in their designs.
So there you have it. Time spent in nature can have a powerful effect on our mental state and there are many ways that we can tap into it.
Brighter and better days are just around the corner. You can count on nature to make it even more uplifting.