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Nature and mental wellbeing

Research psychologist Mat blogs about the connection between nature and our mental wellbeing.

One of the things myself and my colleagues have been researching is how contact with the natural world can help improve mental health and wellbeing. By nature we don’t necessarily mean the wilds of Dartmoor or the Peak District, nature can be your local park, a canal tow path, your garden, or even the flowers in your window box.

So why is going for a walk in the park, a jog on the beach, or a ride along the river good for mental health? First there is considerable evidence that physical activity in general can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety but this isn’t the only reason. Even sitting on a bench looking at the sunset, or listening to bird song also has beneficial effects.

As many people will know a significant aspect of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety is the tendency to worry and overthink things, getting caught in a spiral of negative thoughts about the world or oneself. With the uncertainty that has been around Covid19, this is perfectly understandable, but while some consideration is helpful, too much can undermine our mental health.

Nature works, at least in part, by cutting through those negative thoughts, encouraging people to focus instead on the natural world; repetitive pattern of waves, the play of squirrels, or the coconut smell of warm gorse flowers. Nature reminds us there is something much bigger than ourselves, natural cycles of growth and decay.

An obvious question is how much nature do people need? The sweet spot – for many – seems to be between 2-4 hours a week. Crucially it doesn’t matter how this 2-4 hours a week is achieved, one long Sunday walk or lots of shorter mini-breaks, whatever suits your lifestyle.

More recently we’ve also established that spending time in your own garden may have similar benefits, whether you’re actively gardening or just relaxing. A key feature though is that you have to be mindful of your environment, it’s no use sitting in the garden or in the park simply worrying about other things, the key is to allow your mind to wander to the sights and sounds and smells around you, and to re-establish that ‘connectedness’ many of us seem to feel towards the natural world intuitively.

One thing to remember is that none of us like to feel pressured into doing things we don’t want to, and the same is true of spending time in nature. Research suggests that if people feel pressured by well-meaning friends and family to get out in nature, it can undermine the experience for them as they become worried about whether they are meeting (or failing to meet) their loved one’s expectations.

The take home message if you are currently coping with something like anxiety or depression – is to be kind to yourself, if spending time focusing on the natural world helps you take your mind off things – do it. But take each day as it comes and don’t put any additional pressure on yourself.

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