“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks” – John Muir
As well as the conservation work Froglife does for amphibians and reptiles across the UK, we also run projects that promote education amenities and research activities for the benefit of the public. We run wildlife projects for disadvantaged young people and those with dementia, such as our Green Pathways, Green Pathways for Life and Leaping forward for Dementia projects. A common issue amongst our participants is mental health, especially coming out the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our Eco therapy style project is based on scientific research that suggests being outdoors and connecting with nature, have hugely positive effects on individuals.
As countries become increasingly urbanised, the world’s population is spending increasingly less time exposed to natural environments (Cox et al, 2018). It has been reported that 55% of the world’s population live in urban areas and this is expected to increase to 68% by 2050 (United Nations, 2018). Unfortunately, urbanisation not only means spending less time in natural environments but more time destroying them and reducing the number of green spaces around the globe (Collins, 2014). Aside from the detrimental environmental effects of this, loss of these green spaces and time spent in them could have hugely negative effects on people’s mental health and well-being.
There is growing evidence to suggest that being in nature has positive effects on people’s mental health. Studies have shown that green spaces can lower levels of stress (Wells et al, 2003) and reduce rates of depression and anxiety, reduce cortisol levels (Park et al, 2010) and improve general well-being. Not only can a simple walk in nature boost your mood but also improve your cognitive function and memory (Berman et al, 2012). Green spaces can provide a buffer against the negative health impacts of stressful life events. A Dutch study showed that residents with a higher area of green spaces within a 3km radius had a better relationship with stressful life events (Van den Berg et al, 2010) which was soon to be increasingly important in recent years with the effects of COVID-19.
So what is it about natural environments that are good for mental health and wellbeing?
Positive Physiological effects
Something as simple as exposure to natural environments can be physiologically restorative (Conniff et al, 2014). This means that being in a natural outdoor environment can have positive mental health effects due to the physical processes elicited in the body. A Japanese study showed that viewing and walking in forest environments can promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rates and blood pressure when compared to city environments (Park et al, 2010). These physiological effects are all a counter to the physical effects stress causes in the body and are what happens when you relax. A recent study found that those who had access to natural spaces during the COVID-19 lockdowns had lower levels of stress and those that could view nature from home had reduced psychological distress (Ribeiro et al, 2021).
There are multiple psychological theories as to how nature helps our mental well-being. The two common prevailing theories on how nature brings about these positive effects are the Stress Reduction Theory (SRT) coined by Ulrich (1981) and Kaplan et al’s (1989) Attention Restoration Theory (ART). SRT suggests that nature promotes recovery from stress and that urban environments have the opposite effect. Ulrich proposes that being in unthreatening natural environments (a green space you would consider safe) activates a positive emotional response. That being in nature produces this as a universal innate connection, promoting the physiological effects of lower blood pressure, heart rate and increases attention which in turn blocks negative thoughts and emotions (Ulrich et al, 1991). Kaplan et al’s ART works around the idea that we have different types of attention: voluntary or involuntary, and that the latter requires no effort. After using voluntary attention we experience ‘attention fatigue’, reducing our cognitive abilities and increasing mental fatigue. According to Kaplan et al, when we use our involuntary attention it gives us time to restore our voluntary attention. From this, Kaplan et al have suggested that what nature provides acts as a restorative power by providing four processes:
- Being away – an opportunity to distance from routine activities and thoughts.
- Soft fascination – nature holds attention effortlessly: think about the sunsets, sound of water, leaves blowing in the wind all-natural phenomena allowing your voluntary attention to rest.
- Extent – nature provides an immersion experience, engaging the mind and rest from concerns.
- Compatibility – a setting that is well matched to human needs and desires, providing a feeling of being in harmony with a greater whole.
These two theories have much in common: they focus on cognitive vs autonomic processes and both support a change in attention and stress load when an individual interacts with the natural environment (Gregory N. Bratman, 2012). However, they differ in how they suggest the primary mechanisms work. The effects the theories suggest are blurred in the sense of cause and effect: does a reduction in stress levels allow someone to concentrate better or does replenished direct attention help reduce stress?
Both these assertions are controversial in the field of environmental psychology, yet much research falls under either both or one of these theories.
Mental Health and Nature Policy
To what degree these theories influence policy is debated but it is clear that in recent years, especially after the recent pandemic, that nature spaces are becoming an increasing priority for mental health provision. Research has evidenced that we need to shift our attention from focusing on people visiting green spaces to how we interact and connect with nature close to home through simple activities (Mental Health Foundation, 2021). The Mental Health Foundation suggests from their research findings that we need to focus on six main areas in policy:
- Facilitating connection with nature
- Protecting the natural environment and restoring biodiversity
- Improving access to nature
- Making green spaces safe for all
- Using the planning system and urban design to improve the visibility of nature in every local area
- Developing a life – long relationship with nature.
Through our projects at Froglife we provide ways for people to interact with the environment instead of simply just being in it.
Promotion of Physical activity
Green spaces such as nature reserves, wilderness environments and urban parks also promote certain behaviours, such as encouraging physical activity within the space, which is a pro-mental health behaviour. Experimental studies have shown that not only do green spaces promote experience but they may be better for mental health than activity in other environments. Those that perform exercise in natural environments once a week are at about half the risk of poor mental health as those that don’t (Mitchell, 2013). Participation and involvement in nature is often tied to physical activities such as gardening or farming, trekking or running: the evidence of the benefits of this promotes the idea that green spaces should be seen as an essential health resource (Pretty, 2004).
There are many more benefits associated with natural green spaces. However, in terms of mental well-being, greener areas have been associated with a sustained improvement in mental health, highlighting the significance of green spaces, especially in urban areas. They provide not only a habitat for wildlife but also sustainable public health benefits (Alcock et al, 2014). Many studies have shown that more time spent in nature is associated with better mental health, independent of culture and climatic contexts, as well as the promotion of physical activity.
In addition to the wildlife and environmental benefits of conserving nature spaces, especially in urban areas, we also benefit in many ways from these natural spaces. This gives us even more reason to continue to protect our wildlife and conserve our natural areas and green space.
Alcock, I, et al., 2014. Longitudinal Effects on Mental Health of Moving to Greener and Less Green Urban Areas. Environmental Science & Technology , 48, 1247-1255.
Berman, M.G, et al., 2012. Interacting with nature improves cognition and affect for individuals with depression. Journal of Affective Disorders, 140, 300-305.
Bratman, M.G, et al., 2012. The impacts of nature experience on human cognitive function and mental health. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (Issue: The Year in Ecology and Conservation Biology), 1249, 118-136.
Collins, A.M., 2014. Destruction of urban green spaces: A problem beyond urbanization in Kumasi city (Ghana). American Joural of Environmental Protection, 3, 1-9.
Conniff, A, et al., 2016. A methodological approach to understanding the wellbeing and restorative benefits associated with greenspace. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 19, 103-109
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Kaplan, R, et al., 1989. The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Mental Health Foundation, 2021. Nature- How Connecting with nature benefits our mental health. Published on-line.
Mitchell, R., 2013. Is physical activity in natural environments better for mental health than physical activity in other environments? Social Science & Medicine, 91, 130-134.
Park, B.J, et al., 2010. The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine, 15, 18-26.
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Ribeiro, A.I, et al., 2021. Exposure to nature and mental health outcomes during COVID-19 lockdown. A comparison between Portugal and Spain. Environment International, 154 article 106664.
Ulrich, R. S., 1981. Natural Versus Urban Scenes: Some Psychophysiological Effects. Environment and Behavior 13, 523-556.
Ulrich, R. S., et al., 1991. Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 11, 201-230.
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Wells, N.M. & Evans, G.W., 2003. Nearby Nature: A Buffer of Life Stress among Rural Children. Environment and Behavior, 35, 311-330.