At the height of the pandemic, we were only entitled to one walk per day. Back then, many of us rediscovered the joy of being out in nature. While we know, instinctively, that spending time in nature is good for us, we often underestimate the real extent to which it contributes to our wellbeing.
Chinese healers right up to many Western writers, including Henry David Thoreau and Nan Shepherd, have long extolled beliefs in the wellbeing benefits of time spent in nature. Research is now catching up and shedding light on the wellbeing, cognitive and mental health benefits of connecting with nature, and what we can do to experience them. Let's see what nature can do for us.
Mood boosts, less loneliness and awe
A study published in December last year has shown that being surrounded by nature can reduce the loneliness experienced by city dwellers experience by 35%. Feeling connected to nature also relates to seeing more meaning in life, and this also applies to people with mental health problems who can struggle to feel this way. Nature connection can also induce mood boosts (including for those with mood disorders), improve sleep quality and reduce stress levels.
Nature can also elicit deep feelings of awe, inspiration and connection to a greater whole, which can have a transformative, or even therapeutic effect, as we’ll see later on. In fact, seeing natural landscapes or hearing soundscapes, such as birdsong or the wind rustling in the trees, are some of the most common and most potent elicitors of awe. And it wasn’t just the Romantics (think of the stunning landscape paintings of J.M.W. Turner or Caspar David Friederich) who were able to pick up on this — it’s something that every single one of us can experience.
Being in nature is also linked to increased autonomy (the ability to choose one’s actions freely), feeling like life tasks are manageable, and vitality (feeling alive and energised). And you’re likely to see these benefits whether you’re exploring nature by yourself or with others.
Better memory, more attention and epiphanic experiences
Studies have found a multitude of cognitive benefits associated with nature experiences. Green spaces near schools were linked to positive cognitive development in children. Students who looked at a green roof partway through a demanding task made fewer mistakes than those who looked at an urban scene. Residents of greener public-housing buildings experienced less mental fatigue. They also found improvements in memory, attention, and concentration after spending time in nature.
Nature experiences have also been shown to improve imagination and creativity, and even lead to epiphanies. Aura Goldman, a psychotherapist and lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire studies epiphanic experiences:
“Being in the natural world has the potential (intentionally or unintentionally) to place a person in a challenging, unusual, or unsettling situation where their usual ways of dealing with problems don’t work (epiphanies often emerge out of turmoil). By being placed in this situation, the person is forced to come to some new realisation or perspective, or else succumb to the difficulty. Epiphanic experiences have some interesting intersections with eco-therapeutic perspectives because research has demonstrated that spending time in nature can often be a precursor to epiphanic experience,” she adds.” She also points out that “nature is also a place where we can experience deep emotions, such as awe, which can also have a transformative effect.”
What do we need to do to experience these benefits?
Recent research shows that as little as two hours spent in natural environments each week can improve mental health. And as we’ve seen earlier in the article, simply having nature within sight can be beneficial. Also, populating offices with plants made staff happier and improved productivity. More than that, a study has shown that even looking at pictures of nature is likely to reduce stress levels, mostly due to the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls rest functions in your body.
There are many ways to experience the mental benefits of connecting with nature without having to go very far. Natalie Rossiter, a psychotherapist and mindfulness practitioner, recommends starting small and simple:
“When going out for a walk we often think about going from A to B. When going into nature, go with the aim to engage your senses. See what you can smell. Slow down and notice. Don’t be afraid to stop and touch bark [on the trees]. Reconnect to that simple noticing. See what that feels like.”
Natalie recommends engaging with nature (in some way) every day. “You can even observe nature outside your window. Notice the sky. Look at trees from the window. Have regular places that you notice and see as they change through the season. Make a cup of tea, stand outside for five minutes, and watch the sky — that could be a form of connecting with nature. It doesn’t have to be time-consuming.”
Given the many benefits of nature on wellbeing and mental health, psychotherapists have started incorporating nature experiences in their practice. Aura Goldman elaborates,
“Nature can be a powerful container when we’re facing psychological difficulties, and connecting with the natural world around us can be incredibly restorative. For a client with little interest in nature, incorporating nature into therapy might mean using imagery of the natural world during an experiential exercise; for a client with a lot of interest, this might mean having our entire session outside, whether that just be in their garden or the wider natural world. I have found the integration of nature into my approach to be extremely beneficial, particularly when working with people who experience eco-anxiety, which, given the continuing climate and nature crises, looks to be a phenomenon on the rise.”
But why are humans so drawn to nature?
Naturalists still debate why we are so drawn to spending time in nature. Some academics theorise that our early ancestors’ dependence on the natural world leads us to seek out a connection with nature, even though many of us now live in urban environments. After all, attraction to nature spans cultures and starts from very young ages.
Others think nature’s attention-boosting or stress-reducing properties promote additional mental health benefits. This theory assumes that we have directed attention, which involves prolonged focus and effort, and involuntary attention, which is still demanding but less effortful. Directed attention is thought to be limited and prone to exhaustion, and when the latter happens, lead to irritability and negative emotions. Natural environments are thought to restore directed attention by effortlessly engaging it through its richness and allowing us to act freely, without us having to monitor our behaviour which is what we would often do.
Whilst nature can do a lot to support positive mental health, climate change and the current state of the environment are exacerbating mental health problems.
People who have experienced extreme weather events and the direct impact of climate change may suffer from PTSD, anxiety, and depression. And those watching the climate crisis unfolding on news channels, TV shows, and social media feeds aren’t immune to its mental health effects either. From record-beating temperatures to flash floods to debate around the success or failure of agreements made at COP26, there’s no escaping predictions about climate change and what it means for life on our planet. Climate anxiety (or eco-anxiety) is described by the American Psychological Association (APA) as a chronic fear of environmental doom.
What can you do if you’re experiencing climate anxiety? Learn about the environment and do what you can for it. Take steps to reduce your carbon impact. Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute has some great ideas on how you can make a difference. But also accept that there are larger systems at play. Your actions, unfortunately, may not solve climate change. However you may take solace in the fact that you’ve done your part in helping the cause.
Are you in?
We’ve seen that connecting with nature can improve mood, reduce feelings of stress or anger, improve confidence and self-esteem, improve your ability to concentrate and help you to feel more relaxed.
From forest bathing to gardening projects and dipping in cold water, there are now many ways to spend regular, guided time in nature – enjoying both the great outdoors and the mental health benefits it offers. Be it rain or glorious sunshine, lace up and get out, even if just for a bit. You’ll be grateful you’ve done it.
If you’re looking for therapists who harness the benefits of connecting with nature, connect with Aura or Natalie, or book a free consultation with our in-house therapist to find the right support for your at this moment in time.
Next up, learn about the mental health benefits of cold water swimming and the link between our mental health and our immune system. If you have any questions about this article, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear your thoughts!