Nature and mental health: The importance of the environment for our wellbeing has been highlighted by lockdown

Moseley Park & Pool, Birmingham. Credit: ITV News Central

The past few weeks have been tough for many - but a survey has found that during lockdown, more and more people have been turning to nature to boost their mental health and wellbeing.

And as our Environment Correspondent Charlotte Cross has been finding out, there’s a growing body of academic and practical research which supports a real, tangible relationship between the emotional health of human beings, and the environment in which they live.

If you ever read Enid Blyton when you were young, you might remember the frequency with which her adventurous young characters would be sent away to the seaside or the country whenever they were struck down with the flu or the sniffles.

This kind of post-illness recovery trip became particularly popular during the Victorian era, especially amongst the well-to-do, and reflects a trend going back centuries among philosophers and doctors alike promoting the restorative benefits of nature.

In recent years, scientists and psychologists have become interested, too. And there’s a wealth of research out there which strongly suggests that regular exposure to the natural world has massive benefits in terms of cognitive function, attention, and emotional wellbeing - as well, of course, as physical health.

The last few weeks has made this rather more difficult, but you don’t have to look far to find evidence that many people have found comfort during lockdown by getting reacquainted with Mother Nature.

Bradgate Park, Leicestershire. Credit: ITV News Central

Some, of course, are lucky enough to live near large parks or open countryside, and could take their daily exercise there - but even those without that easy access have been bird-spotting, potting plants, and discovering what green space there is in their local area.

In fact, a survey by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and the WI found that:

  • 53% of people said they now appreciate local green spaces more

  • 57% said the lockdown had made them more aware of the importance of these spaces for mental health and wellbeing

  • 63% said protecting and enhancing green spaces should be a higher priority when lockdown ends

Louise Baker and her family moved into their new-build home in Drakelow in South Derbyshire, near Burton-on-Trent, at the end of last year.

In the past, she has turned to nature to help her deal with mental health issues including anxiety; she now blogs about her experience and has worked with the Wildlife Trust too.

During lockdown, she and her family have used gardening as a way to stay happy and healthy - as well as making home schooling a little more fun.

Louise says that even just going out and gardening can help. Credit: ITV News Central

“We’ve got quite a lot of planters,” she said.

“We’ve been planting tomatoes, we’ve got carrots, a lot of wild flowers too. And we know people who live in flats who've been doing the same on their balconies, or window sills. You don't need acres of land to get the benefit."

She said some of her anxiety has to do with controlling her immediate environment, but she finds being out in the natural world soothing.

“I can’t control the wind, or which way a leaf is going to blow, and I find it really calming,” she said.

“It’s getting out into the fresh air and it’s interacting with other species as well. It’s feeling a part of something a lot bigger. When we’re out gardening, when anyone’s out gardening, they can listen to the birds and it’s getting to feel more at one with what’s going on around you with wildlife.”

Mind also promotes nature as having benefits for mental health. Credit: ITV News Central

The mental health charity Mind also advises interacting with nature as a way to boost mental health, citing benefits including:

  • improving mood

  • reducing feelings of stress or anger

  • helping people take time out and feel more relaxed

  • improving physical health by being more active

  • improving confidence and self-esteem

Senior psychology lecturer at the University of Birmingham, Ali Mazaheri, is among those researching why this might be.

“There’s now lots of research that demonstrates exposure to nature has benefits for our physical and mental health,” he said.

“For example, studies show that cancer survivors who have regular exposure to nature perform better on cognitive tasks, have a greater likelihood of being able to resume work, and overall exhibit better quality of life*.”

Ali Mazaheri researches the relationship between nature and mental health at the University of Birmingham. Credit: ITV News Central

He told me there are various theories as to why this might be.

Roger Ulrich and colleagues** proposed their often-referenced Stress Reduction Theory in 1991, which outlines how experiencing natural stimuli is less taxing on the brain and the stress response system.

Being in a more urban setting involves dealing with traffic, other people, and higher levels of noise, all of which the brain has to compute and analyse to determine which require an immediate response, and which might pose a danger, and so on.

This idea is supported by the research of Rachel and Stephen Kaplan***, who found that mental fatigue and concentration can be improved by time spent in, and proposed that experiencing nature helped repair what they termed ‘attention fatigue’.

Dawn Thompson says: Credit: Dawn Thompson

Last year, a huge study by Engemann et al**** looked at the mental health of more than 900,000 people, and found that those who had access to green space as children exhibited far fewer difficulties as adults than those who had grown up without nature nearby. This piece of research is considered particularly significant, Mr Mazaheri said, as it controlled for other variables such as parental income and poverty.

It followed another study by the same group of researchers***** which found a link between a lack of access to nature as a child, and increased risk of schizophrenia.

And Mr Mazaheri said he fears the health service will start to see an increase in rates of depression and anxiety once the pandemic is over, particularly amongst those who have either chosen not to take advantage of nature nearby - or have not been able to.

“The relevant take home message with the current pandemic in mind is that individuals should prioritise getting themselves and their children out in nature, while still maintaining the appropriate level of social distancing, as they would other essential things,” Mr Mazaheri said.

Lea Newton says: Credit: Lea Newton

“This will translate to benefits during this pandemic but can also have implications for our wellbeing after the pandemic is over.

“One of the proposed advantages of nature intervention is the idea of resiliency - so you’re more resilient to life’s stressors, whether those stressors be economic or work-related. I think what’s going to happen is those individuals who are stuck indoors who have not really gone out, their resiliency is far lower.”

The CPRE - which conducted the latest survey - is now hoping that with more people realising the importance of having easily accessible green space, more will be done to protect it as a valuable asset to communities.

Ron Simpson, from the Rutland branch, said: “It’s hopefully highlighted that the countryside and open green space makes to our lives, and when we’re talking about the next big development, one would hope that an important part of the planning ethos would be what lessons could have been learned.

“The ability to get out into open green space is clearly a health issue, and a mental health issue in particular.”

Pam Fowler says: Credit: Pam Fowler
Bethany Pottinger says she spotted this swan and her cygnets at Sandwell Valley. Credit: Bethany Pottinger
  • Sources cited in this article:

* Cimprich & Ronis (Cancer Nursing, 2003) found environmental interventions resulted in improvements in cognitive performance in women who had been newly diagnosed with breast cancer.

** Ulrich (Journal of Environmental Psychology, 1991) Stress Reduction Theory

*** Kaplan & Kaplan (Cambridge University Press, 1989) Attention Restoration Theory

**** Engemann, Pedersen, Arge, Tsirogiannis, Mortensen & Svenning (Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 2019) found that residential green space in childhood is associated with a lower risk of psychiatric disorders later in life.

***** Engemann, Pedersen, Arge, Tsirogiannis, Mortensen & Svenning (Schizophrenia Research, 2018) explored childhood exposure to nature risk-decreasing mechanism for schizophrenia