The Nature of Wellbeing

Updated: May 25, 2020

Ever since I can remember, being outside/around nature in some way has been soothing (not including some questionable teen years where parks and fields were synonymous only with the consumption of various substances, blurry photos and terrible decisions). Being around/amongst nature is something that has been increasingly medicinal for me - going for a long walk in a park or the woods can reset my mind entirely. Going for a run surrounded by trees and grass and earthly smells (some more pleasant than others) is like a total system reboot for my body and mind. Now, obviously, the idea that being in and around nature is good for us is ancient. People have been actively studying this forever (well, since the 1980s). But living in Abu Dhabi for the last two years has made me realise how much I miss it - stomping about somewhere green isn’t so easily done here. Pretty much as soon as we arrived, I was fascinated by how much I missed the greenery, being around nature or having a few parks so nearby. And I lived in Greater London - hardly a haven of green space or countryside!! So I sunk into it - what is that? Why is it that that is something I really crave and look forward to going home for? And how did I take it for granted for so long?!

People might be able to relate to this on a personal level, you might have always felt the same as me and there is a substantial, seemingly ever-growing body of scientific evidence to suggest that being around nature is actually good for our health. In 1991, Ulrich et al. carried out a study which showed that “restorative influences of nature involve a shift towards a more positively-toned emotional state, positive changes in physiological activity levels, and that these changes are accompanied by sustained attention/intake.”

Now, with more than 85% of people’s daily lives being lived indoors, it’s more important than ever to find a way of connecting with nature. Not to mention the fact that, depending on which country we are living in, we may have restrictions in place on our time spent outside during this period. Natural England has summarised the evidence for the relationship between the environment and mental health. They summarised that “spending time in or being active in natural environments is associated with positive outcomes for attention, anger, fatigue and sadness, higher levels of positive affect and lower levels of negative affect (mood/emotion) and physiological stress (ibid.)”. Such a simple thing, and so many positive effects! I would just like to acknowledge that as “simple” as this sounds to those who are able-bodied and not bound to the indoors because of physical or mental illnesses, I recognise that this isn’t so simple for others. And I am well aware that I am one of those privileged enough to have taken the great outdoors for granted for so long. For that I’m really grateful - and will try my best to keep that privilege checked.

If you’re living somewhere like the UK, where the weather has been incredible recently and you’ve now been given permission to be outside for longer, you may have recently had this revelation about nature yourself. Going for a walk outside just for the sake of it and because it’s the only thing you really can do might just be a blessing in disguise; it might be a lesson in valuing nature and the outdoors. And I hope all those long wanders around outside carry on long after this pandemic dissipates.

Ok that’s all well and good and everything but what if, like me, you’re living in a place that doesn’t lend itself so easily to long rambling walks in the woods? Apart from anything else, it’s way too hot here to go walking after about 8am and before about 6pm (in my opinion). And apart from weather or landscape conditions, what if you are unable to go outside easily because of a disability or mental illness? Well. Here are a few things that might help bring the outdoors to you - or allow you to enjoy the benefits of the great outdoors without planning to uproot your life and move to the woods.

Get some houseplants

Indoor plants have been shown by Lee et al. in 2015 (referenced in the footnotes above), to reduce physiological and psychological stress. They found that having indoor plants reduces blood pressure and suppresses our sympathetic nervous system (responsible for stress responses). Having plants in our homes is an established method of creating a comforting and soothing environment.

As well as our mental health, a study carried out by Washington State University shows that having indoor plants reduces the dust in the air by almost 20%. So, they reduce the risk of getting ill through irritated airways and itchy eyes/runny noses!

Get into gardening!

If you have a garden, that is. Gardening is a great way to connect with nature. It’s great for our mental health because it shifts our perspective and helps us to focus on the bigger picture (this quells feelings of depression). It also helps us to feel in control (quelling anxiety), which we may need now more than ever.

Gardening also has that creative satisfaction to it - you’re creating and curating a space, and then watching it grow.

It is a way of contributing your love and attention to the world, boosting your sense of self-worth.

Gardening is also fairly cost effective too - seeds and soil can generally be picked up relatively cheaply.

Access nature virtually

There is evidence to show that looking at images, videos, and listening to sounds of nature and greenery helps to shift our bodies and minds back into a calm space, engaging the parasympathetic nervous system. Listening to birdsong, waterfalls; watching videos of forests or nature trails. These can help lower blood pressure as well, and help us sleep better. If you prefer images, setting your desktop background to something natural that you find soothing can work, or get a big poster or painting to put in your living space! Have a play around with this one - see what works best for you. There are lots of beautiful videos on YouTube with meditative, natural backing tracks. I have these videos playing in my office throughout the whole day.

Take it large-scale: Look after the planet

I feel like there will be much more to come on this particular sub-topic! Shifting to a more sustainable, less wasteful lifestyle does wonders for your mental health (especially for certain anxieties). I’ve experienced this myself and I feel that there are many different elements to it (hence why I already feel a few more posts on this to come). Looking at our lifestyle in terms of sustainability helps us to shift our perspective and look outside of ourselves and more towards “the bigger picture”, once again providing an antidote to depression. It helps us to feel a sense of control over the environment - something which is massively lacking at the moment and causing mass anxiety. Especially now, in this time of real eco-anxiety; take the reins and start controlling how you consume, what you waste and how you dispose of it, and how you can minimise both waste and consumption to help promote a safer, healthier world. Just a few swaps and decreases in our consumption can make a big difference.

Being far from any greenery or the type of natural setting I'm used to has made me so aware of how good these things are for anxiety in particular. These changes are things that I’m working on myself - constantly. I remind myself often that just because I’m no longer within walking distance to a big green space, it doesn’t mean I can’t feel close to nature.

Resources used:

Ulrich, R.S., Simons, R.F., Losito, B.D., Fiorito, E., Miles, M.A. and Zelson, M., 1991. Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal of environmental psychology, 11(3), pp.201-230.

Lee, M.S., Lee, J., Park, B.J. and Miyazaki, Y., 2015. Interaction with indoor plants may reduce psychological and physiological stress by suppressing autonomic nervous system activity in young adults: a randomized crossover study. Journal of physiological anthropology, 34(1), p.21.

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