Connecting with Nature

Connecting with Nature

By Dr Felicity Baker and Dr Jo Burrell

Discover powerful ways to leverage nature’s tonic in your day-to-day; slow down your walk to the bus stop, appreciate the changes on your morning run, and tune in to the expert insights of Dr Felicity Baker and Dr Jo Burrell.

The idea that our mental health is impacted by the natural world is not a new one. Back in 1929 Sigmund Freud first wrote about the connection between the mind and the environment. In the 1990’s the concept of ‘ecopsychology’ emerged, drawing on research that connects time spent in nature with improved mental health and wellbeing, and higher levels of resilience. In fact, these ideas have been adopted by the US and UK military through initiatives aimed at connecting returning soldiers to nature, and growing resilience through gardening, farming, retreat centres, and outdoor adventure experiences.

More recently, in 2020, a study of 3000 people positively linked access to green space - even just green window views - to better mental health. Higher rates of green space access were associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety and loneliness, as well as increased self esteem, life satisfaction and happiness.

These mental health benefits of connecting with nature, even in small ways, are linked to stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system which has a calming effect on our bodies, soothing the stress response and generating positive emotions.

snowdonia lake

Ways you can engage with nature to improve your mental health

Experience nature

Take time to recognise and grow your relationship with nature. Finding ways to connect with nature on a regular basis, discovering something you love doing and doing it more will lead to lasting improvements in your mood and health. Depending on your interests, this may be regular hillwalking expeditions, bikepacking in the Peak or wild swimming.

We can also experience the benefits of nature in smaller ways. These are often easier to fit into our busy lives, particularly if we don’t have easy access to outside space. Even in cities we can savour nature just by sitting in a garden or walking in a park, providing us with micro-doses of wellbeing that boost our everyday lives.

Taking time to slow down and appreciate the small things around us can be very mindful, focusing our attention on the present moment and stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. Whether you are walking to the bus stop, going for a run or sitting on a park bench, try noticing what you can see - the birds, plants or trees. Pay attention to other sensations - the sounds and smells, the warmth of the sun or sting of raindrops on your face. See if you can just be in the moment.

If opportunities to access green space are limited, try opening up the natural world by tending a window box or houseplant. Research on workplace wellbeing has shown that indoor plants not only improve the air quality by removing pollutants, but also enhance feelings of comfort, and lead to improved health, productivity, and creativity. Even just being exposed to natural light during work hours can help to improve our sleep, mood and productivity.

Share nature

Experiencing green space need not be a solitary activity. Sharing your experiences with others can provide further benefits to your mental health.

Whether you are participating together in an outdoor activity or working together on an outside project, doing so will provide a wealth of opportunity for experiencing greater social connection, which helps to protect us against stress.

Reflecting on and savouring your outdoor experiences with others, through sharing photos or videos and talking about your nature experiences further opens up space to generate positive emotions. As you remember and talk about moments of awe, interest, joy or serenity you re-experience those emotions and this acts as a tonic for our mental health and wellbeing. Even days or weeks after the event.

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