Nature Space: A Modern Requirement for Good Health and Mental Wellbeing
We all know how easy it is to slip into daily routines with kids and work, appointments and weekend catch ups that make us all wonder just where the time has gone – but how often do we remember to stop and take in the wonder of the natural world? If you are anything like me, not nearly enough. Just how easy is it for us to go days, even weeks, without spending any time relaxing in nature? And just why is it so important?
A few weeks ago, I had found myself rather strung out, tired and feeling somewhat off kilter. I had been taking my herbs and following my usual yoga and exercise routine – home and work life was in relative balance, but something was still missing. I thought it was rest, so ensured that the next weekend I would switch off and just relax, adding in a few more restorative yoga classes. This helped immensely, but I still had a strong impending feeling that I had somehow forgotten something my mind and body needed. After sitting with this for a while, I came to understand that I had simply neglected to spend some of this down time immersed in a natural environment. Well… didn’t I feel silly! One of the most commonly ‘prescribed’ lifestyle changes I discuss with patients, especially those navigating mental health issues, is Nature Space. I had practically starved myself of my connection with nature, and heading out into the sunshine was exactly what I needed. My head cleared and thoughts started to align, I was reenergized and felt happy and peaceful, all in about 30 minutes.
So, what is Nature Space?
Nature Space is spending time in nature, surrounded by elements of the natural world. Of course it is far more effective when we switch off our devices, and has been shown to be beneficial for both our physical and mental wellbeing. Forest bathing (shinrin-yoku), or spending time amongst the trees is a Japanese practice which has been proven to reduce stress hormone (cortisol) production, improve happiness, contentment and joyfulness, enhance creativity and relaxation, lower heart rate and blood pressure and accelerate convalescence.
Researchers are now expanding on this concept with blue space – spending time amongst river and ocean views. The sounds of forest trees swaying in the breeze, the scent of flowers, the gentle crashing of waves upon the beach, sunlight dappled leaves and fresh, clean air all give us a sense of comfort and belonging, easing our stress and worry, and helping us to relax and think more clearly. Being in nature can restore our energy and vitality, and refresh and rejuvenate us. Further, Nature Space sees us spending more time outdoors, boosting vitamin D levels, therefore supporting immune function, regulating mood and maintaining healthy bones and teeth.
The Nature-Wellness Connection
In busy contemporary times, it is very easy to become distracted with everything that needs to be accomplished on a daily basis. Listening to nature teaches us to slow down, literally ‘stop and smell the roses’, and take some space from everyday pressures. Indeed, a growing body of evidence has suggested that greater exposure to, or contact with, natural environments (such as parks, woodlands and beaches) for at least two hours a week is associated with better health and wellbeing among those in urbanised societies1. Living in greener areas is associated with lower probabilities of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, asthma hospitalisation, and ultimate mortality among adults, while lowering the risk of obesity and myopia in children1.
Spending time in nature has also been found to be associated with better self-reported health and subjective wellbeing in adults1. Our innate desire to connect with nature has a significant impact, especially on our mental health. Nature Space has been shown to improve attention spans, lower stress levels, improve mood, and reduce the risk of psychiatric disorders while enhancing empathy and cooperation1,2. Working memory, cognitive flexibility and attentional control all improved; conversely, exposure to more urban environments has been linked to attention deficits2. A study by Cornell University has also found that spending 10-50 minutes per day sitting or walking in natural spaces was most effective in improving mood, focus and physiological markers such as blood pressure and heart rate for college students3.
Children need Nature Space too (maybe especially)
Importantly, it’s not just us adults that need this Nature Space. Research has even demonstrated that green spaces near schools has even been found to promote cognitive development in children, while greener views near children’s homes was found to promote self-control behaviors1,2. Studies have also shown better birth outcomes1, and a reduced risk of many psychiatric disorders later in life including depression, mood disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and substance use4. Risk of developing mental illness is 55% higher in those who have low levels of exposure to green space during childhood4.
Children have also demonstrated improved social skills when exposed to nature; one study finding elementary school children behaving more pro-socially with others within a nature setting when compared with an indoor environment6. Researchers Zelenski and colleagues insist that it wasn’t simply being in nature that made these children happier and therefore more giving, stating that ‘there are some hints that awe is associated with generosity, and nature can be a way to induce awe… one of the things that may come from awe is the feeling that the individual is part of a much bigger whole’6.
This feeling of being part of something more than we are as individuals might play a role in our sense of belonging – we simply are a part of the natural world, and this time can afford us the opportunity for much inward reflection. Chartered Psychologist Dr Miles Richardson contends that these reflective thoughts can improve our self-knowledge - a genuine interest about our own values and attitudes7. It can also help us reflect on the emotions that contribute to our concept of self7. With a better understanding of ourselves, we can begin to move through challenging feelings and start to free ourselves from limiting beliefs; transforming ourselves and our lives. Of course, this kind of healing takes time, and no one can put a timer on these things, but learning to regularly get to know yourself amongst nature may just be what you need to accelerate the healing process.
You Do You
It appears that doesn’t really matter how you get your Nature Space in, just that you do1. Exposing yourself to Nature Space to fit your personal preference and circumstances – you might prefer a long walk through the forest far from home on the weekend, or you might enjoy several regular short visits to a local greenspace. Many take advantage of their lunchbreaks to go sit under a tree, or perhaps you are lucky enough to walk to work from the train station under magnificent plane trees throughout the city gardens.
Perhaps you might like to try out a few new ideas out in order to ensure you get enough Nature Space. You might love a good run on the treadmill, but you might find that a good run along the beach or through a bush track in the fresh air may deliver even more joy. If you have children to cater for… a beautiful parkland surrounded by trees would be a perfect place for a few family strolls and an outdoor play to invigorate and regenerate throughout the week.
If you cannot get outside very much, maybe you could consider bringing nature inside, reserving a special space for several indoor plants; a sanctuary near a window that is just for those wishing to enjoy peace, immerse themselves in the greenspace and find internal peace. Many have found this to be a brilliant way of getting some greenspace when the weather is a bit too chilly! Added bonus: the mental space you gift yourself when tending to your indoor garden!
Some of us may be unable to get outdoors regularly due to illness or mobility issues. The wonderful news here is that there are alternatives. A couple of studies have even gone so far as to compare health outcomes with those who obtained actual Nature Space versus those in an urban setting that exposed to videos or virtual reality of nature setting imagery. Although positive health effects were stronger among those who were able to spend time outside, they found that both types of exposure led to positive emotions, improvements in attention, and the ability to reflect on a life problem5.
However we choose to do it, it’s important that we make sure we actually get Nature Space so that we can maintain mental and emotional balance; it is just too easy to become inundated and even overwhelmed with all that is expected of us, and all that we expect of ourselves. Regularly putting self-care first can be difficult as we see others, such as our little ones, as a priority, but no-one can serve from an empty plate. We can learn to incorporate new, healthy activities into our lives, which may be a challenge at first, but once we start to see the resulting additional love and care we can give to others, we begin to understand that it is actually the most unselfish thing we could possibly do for our families and for ourselves. Further, maintaining these healthy habits teach future generations to remain connected to the Earth.
So, even if you don’t feel like it, gear yourself (and your little tribe) up, and head out into the wonder of the natural world – you will feel all the better for it.
*This article does not replace medical advice and is not intended to diagnose or treat any conditions.