This week has been Mental Health Awareness Week (May 10th – May 16th 2021) The theme this year has been nature and the essential role it plays in promoting good mental health for everyone.
For that reason, I wanted to explain in a bit more detail just why nature is so great for mental health! Plus I want to highlight some great tips from the Mental Health Foundation on ways everyone can connect with nature.
Why nature is so beneficial to us
We all know that it’s good to get outside, but what specifically do we get from nature? During the lengthy pandemic people naturally gravitated to the outdoors. Research by the Mental Health Foundation during the pandemic showed that walks outside were one of the top coping strategies. 45% of people in the UK reported that being in green spaces had been vital for their mental health. We know this instinctively, and the benefits are numerous, but here are a few of the most important ones.
Reduces stress levels
Breathing in fresh air helps to regulate our serotonin levels, which in turn promotes happiness and well-being. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects appetite, mood, memory, behaviour, and many other processes. If we have too much serotonin we’ll become irritable and tense, but too little and you can become depressed.
Additionally, numerous studies have shown that being out in the fresh air reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Reduces blood pressure
If we spend all our time in polluted or indoor environments, the body needs to work very hard to take in all the oxygen it needs to function. This raises your heart rate and blood pressure. But when we breathe in cleaner air, it takes the pressure of our heart and lowers blood pressure.
Inflammation is a vital defence mechanism to control threats to the body. However, too much inflammation is dangerous. It is associated with inflammatory bowel disease, cancer and depression. An interesting study shows that just a week spent surrounded by nature was enough to reduce the inflammation of the participants.
Helps with sleep
The natural light we get from being outdoors can help to regulate your sleep. Melatonin is the hormone that helps us sleep. The gland that produces melatonin is directly affected by sunlight. By being exposed to natural light, it remains inactive and then kicks in when it is dark. The right amount of melatonin means that you get a good night’s sleep.
Improves short term memory
A study carried out by the University of Michigan, showed that being in nature improved short-term memory. They compared two groups of people and gave them a memory test. Then one group walked around an arboretum and the other group walked around a busy city street. The group who had wandered around in the trees showed an improvement in the memory test of 20%. Even a similar test where the participants were simply shown pictures of trees vs streets, showed an improvement. It is thought that the reason for the improvement is that with less distraction to tax our attention, it frees our minds up to choose what to focus on.
How much time do I need to spend in nature to benefit my mental health?
Mathew White of the European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter led a study of 20,000 people to find out how much time spent in green spaces was beneficial. The study concluded that a minimum 120 minutes was the key to seeing an improvement in mental health. People who spent two hours a week in parks or green spaces reported better mental health than those who didn’t. The study covered people of all ages and backgrounds and included people with disabilities and chronic illness.
The two hours could be taken all at once or could be spread out over several visits. So, even small contacts with nature can be effective in protecting our mental health, and preventing distress.
7 ways to connect with nature to improve your mental health
- Get outside in natural places like gardens, parks or forests. For all of the above reasons, this can help you reduce your risk of mental health problems, lift your mood, and help you feel better about things.
- Find nature wherever you are. Even in a city, there are small areas or community gardens set aside for green space, that you can explore.
- Whether you’re relaxing in the garden or on your way to work, or out for a walk, try listening out for the birds singing, looking for butterflies, noticing the feel of the sun or the breeze on your face. Use all your sense to engage with your surroundings.
- Exercise outdoors! If you’re exercising, try to do it outside if possible – whether running, walking or cycling.
- Have some plants in the house. This is a fantastic way to be able to see, touch, and smell something natural, when you can’t get outside.
- Try combining creativity and nature. This could involve taking part in creative activities outside, like dance, music, or art. All of these things can help reduce stress and improve your mood.
- Taking care of something can be a really great way to feel good. And what better thing to take care of than nature? Nature is amazing! Try simple things such as recycling, walking instead of driving, or even joining clean-up or conservation groups.
Nature can help you to stay on top of your mental health
I hope you are able to use this information to improve your mental health and connect with nature to reap the many benefits it offers. As always, please share if you know someone who would benefit from reading it. For more information and useful downloads, head over to our website.
With very best wishes