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Category: Mental Health, Health and Wellbeing, Mental Health Awareness Week, Employee Wellbeing, mental health initiative, mental health week, WWF, Nature, mental illness, mental wellbeing, WWF-UK
Crucially to stay safe from COVID-19 we need to follow government and scientific advice. Whilst we adapt to meet the challenges of the current situation there are other impacts we need to consider, particularly on our wellbeing and mental health. To help there has recently been a real array of activities and support coming forward. The diversity of activities is incredibly important, as we are all different. However, one area that can help us all and continue to unite us, is nature! It is in our “DNA”.
We have an inherent understanding that being outside in nature is good for us and more recently science is helping us understand why! As our lives change, with more and more of us living in cities with less access to green space and technology absorbing more time we are losing a connection with nature. In the sixties the term biophilia came into being (the Greek meaning “meaning love of nature”) and it was made popular in 1984 by the American Biologist E.O. Wilson who believed - because we have evolved in nature, we have a biological need to connect with it. The concept was originally considered as the instinct for self-preservation and during the last three decades science has evolved to study our changing connection with nature, and this can help us as we seek to adapt for the future.
Losing touch with nature
Being in nature can have so many benefits for our health and wellbeing, but also we can simply be fascinated with its sheer beauty and wonder. Exposure to nature not only makes you feel better emotionally, it contributes to your physical wellbeing, can reduce blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension.
We are, however, changing and we are becoming an indoor species. Where some of us now spend 90 per cent of our life indoors, even before the current situation! We have of course embraced technology, and this has revolutionised the we live, with many people spending eight hours a day looking at screens. This is all having an increasing impact on our health and wellbeing. In the UK it is reported over one third of people are unsatisfied with their physical health and one in four will reportedly experience mental health problems.
The helping hand of science
Traditional thinking and current medical research have proven that spending time in nature, notably forests and woodland can improve physical and mental wellbeing. Yet we are creating bigger gaps to access and connect with nature. Even the foods we eat are reducing forests and clearing lands for agriculture through deforestation, when it is already considered we have enough land available to feed the world. Yet the practice continues to clear the forests and push them further away from people.
Science is helping us to better understand the how and why nature impacts us, and importantly what it can do to help us in preventing health problems and improve our wellbeing. As children, many of us may have enjoyed playing in the mud, and there is good reason for it as soil makes us happy.
Dr Mary O’Brien, an oncologist, in her work found almost by accident that the mycobacterium vaccae in soils helps to boost our immune systems, but also “significantly improved patient quality of life”. In tests with her patients they apparently felt more positive, had higher energy and cognitive functions.
As well as soils, trees and plants can also help us with the phytoncides they release. Phytoncides are natural oils within a tree or plant to help protect them. Studies have shown the benefits to us are numerous including - decrease stress hormones, increase hours of sleep, and increases natural killer (NK) cell activity which can increase anti-cancer protein production. NK cells, are a white blood cell, and important for our immune system. NK cells can play a major role in the host-rejection of both tumours and virally infected cells.
As well as having physical impacts on us and understanding the benefits of why nature is good for us, woods are also thought of as inspirational places. Albert Einstein used to take breaks in a small campus wood, as he said it allowed him to connect with what he considered “the source of all true art and science”.
The importance of green space
In our towns and cities the public parks and gardens have many functions and they play a critical role in cooling, providing safe routes for walking, cycling, as well as sites for physical activity, social interaction and for recreation. Having access to green spaces can reduce health inequalities, improve well-being, and help in prevention of mental illness. Analysis in recent medical studies suggests that physical activity in a natural environment is a positive preventative measure and can help remedy mild depression and reduce physiological stress indicators.
In the UK the Victorians recognised the need for parks and green spaces, as places to provide refuge from the bustling city. Around the world perhaps one of the most striking examples of where this works is in the busiest of metropolises, New York, with Central Park. Frederick Law Olmsted, American landscape architect designed the park as part of the approach to make the city more appealing.
In 2006 Dr Peter Groenewegan Dutch, Health Scientist and his colleagues reinvented “vitamin G” which is now often thought of as the medicinal influence of greenspace. There are in fact medical practitioners that now write formal prescriptions for exercise and greenspace. This form of “social prescription” now becoming more widespread can help as a preventative and restorative route to help tackle many issues including stress and wellbeing.
Connecting with nature
Gardeners often extol the virtues of getting outside and connecting with nature, but if you do not have a garden your local park, small wood or forest can help. In these current times when many of us are spending so much time inside and looking at screens we will need to find ways of reconnecting with nature. The Japanese government in the 80’s, sought to use connecting with nature as a solution to the increased stress the technology boom was having on individuals’ health across the country. As a result, Shirin Yoku was promoted, which translates into English as “forest shower” or as it is often known “forest bathing”. It is essentially taking time out and walking in the forest using allyour senses. Four hours is considered an optimum time to gain benefits, but as little as twenty minutes can help. If you do not have access to a forest, any green space can still help.
If you have access to a patch of grass you could even kick off your shoes, take a walk in the grass and wiggle your toes!
Reconnect and kick off your shoes.
Even sight of greenspace or trees through a window can help engage thoughts of nature and it has been shown to have a positive effect. If you do not have the opportunity to get outside, or have a window that looks over greenspace, there are still things you can do to help your wellbeing and connect with nature, such as keeping plants in your home or having a window box. Even the sight of green can have a calming effect. Candles with scents from nature or essential oils can also help with alertness or help to relax.
Importantly we must not lose sight of the importance of nature for our children. Being outside in nature is good for children’s physical and mental development. This connection at an early age is so important if, for the longer term, we are to continue to value and care for nature and receive the benefits back from nature for our future.
Beauty and wonder
Perhaps some of the most impactful aspects of nature is in its sheer beauty, fascination and wonder. Around the globe there are stunning landscapes, exotic plants and amazing animals. You do not have to travel far to experience the beauty of nature, it is in your neighbourhood. Whether the blossom of Spring, the excitement of seeing wildlife, or the simply the pleasure of seeing something grow. Nature has beauty and wonder in almost every place!
In these unprecedented times when we have had to stay inside to stay safe and keep well, the scenes of nature can seem distant. But you really do not have to travel far as there is wonder in nature in so many places, you could look out for it on your daily exercise in your local parks and in the trees. Why not take a little time to slow down, walk, and use all your senses, consider your wellbeing and think of the benefits nature can bring to you in your neighbourhood!
Below are some links that can help signpost you to information and support for your wellbeing in these changing times. There is a great deal of help at hand.
Stuart Dainton, Head of Trillion Trees, WWF-UK, www.trilliontrees.org
Mental Health First Aid England
Mental Health Guidance during Coronavirus time
Mental Wellbeing and the Nature link
Connecting with Nature during lockdown
Ideas to support children and their mental health during school closure.