Green spaces can help reduce stress and blood pressure, and promote wellbeing and confidence
by Bethan Rees
This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (10–16 May), a campaign by the Mental Health Foundation (MHF), is themed around nature. The foundation’s ongoing research on the mental health impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic includes a report titled Resilience across the UK during the coronavirus pandemic, published in September 2020. It finds that of the 4,251 UK adults surveyed, 50% visited green spaces in August as a way of coping with stress due to the pandemic, and all its focus group respondents said that green spaces – including gardens, parks, allotments, balconies with plants, the seaside – had helped them cope.
The campaign aims to "inspire more people to connect with nature in new ways, noticing the impact that this connection can have for their mental health" and also to "convince decision-makers at all levels that access to and quality of nature is a mental health and social justice issue as well as an environmental one", according to the MHF campaign page.
On it, MHF CEO Mark Rowland writes: “In the first lockdown, I called an elderly friend. She lives alone and had recently had a fall. Separated from her community, she had lost all in-person contact. When I asked her how she had got through it, she told me it was [by] taking daily comfort from watching the birds sing to each other on the fence and the flowers re-emerge from the frosts of winter … It was as if we were re-discovering at our most fragile point our fundamental human need to connect with nature."
The connection between nature and mental health
Mental health charity Mind says on its website that "spending time in green space or bringing nature into your everyday life can benefit both your mental and physical wellbeing", saying that it can help to improve mood, reduce feelings of stress or anger, boost confidence and relaxation. Mind also says that ecotherapy – a formal type of therapeutic treatment that involves doing outdoor activities in nature – can help with moderate depression.
On the MHF campaign page, Rowland says that "nature is so central to our psychological and emotional health, that it’s almost impossible to realise good mental health for all without a greater connection to the natural world".
A Harvard Health Publishing article talks about the connection between mental health and nature. "Research in a growing scientific field called ecotherapy has shown a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression," it says, adding that "it's not clear exactly why outdoor excursions have such a positive mental effect." It references a 2015 study where researchers compared brain activity of healthy people after walking for 90 minutes, both in nature and in an urban setting. It found those who were walking in nature had lower activity in the "prefrontal cortex, a brain region that is active during rumination — defined as repetitive thoughts that focus on negative emotions".
The article quotes Dr Jason Strauss, director of geriatric psychiatry at Harvard-affiliated Cambridge Health Alliance: "When people are depressed or under high levels of stress, this part of the brain malfunctions, and people experience a continuous loop of negative thoughts". The article goes on to explain calming nature sounds and "outdoor silence" can help lower blood pressure and cortisol (the stress hormone) levels.
How to reconnect with nature
The MHF campaign page says that despite the benefits of being in nature, many people are not accessing or benefiting from it.
But there are plenty of ways of reconnecting with nature. Suggestions on the Mind website include growing or picking food, outdoor activities, helping the environment and connecting with animals.
If you're looking to grow or pick food, Mind suggests creating a ‘growing space’, which could be planting seeds in window boxes or a plant pot. It also suggests considering allotment or community garden projects, and finding out where you can pick fruit locally (or forage for edible plants).
Outdoor activities include exercise, art, eating meals outdoors, following a woodland trail, joining a local walking group, or beachcombing (searching the beach for interesting things).
Helping the environment, as Mind suggests, could be going on a litter-picking walk in your local area, volunteering for a conservation project, or building an animal or insect habitat, such as a hedgehog house or an 'insect hotel'.
Connecting with animals could include a local wildlife watch, placing a bird feeder outside a window, or volunteering at an animal shelter.
There are so many ways of connecting, or reconnecting, with nature that can fit in with your schedule, lifestyle and location, and the benefits of doing so are far reaching. For more tips on coping with stress and managing mental health, visit our mental health portal at cisi.org/startaconversation.