This week is mental health awareness week and the theme this year is nature. And with very good reason. Humans have existed on this planet for at least 200,000 years but civilisation as we know it, our oldest towns and cities alike are only just 6,000 years old. In evolutionary terms, we’ve arrived late to the urban party which demonstrates to me our strong affinity with nature and the natural world. Only in the past decade or so, we as humans have become a majority-urban species with the UN estimating that by 2050 almost 70% of us will be urban dwellers.
Climate change aside, what effect do you think this type of living might have on our mental health? Well let’s look at the evidence. The year is 2020 and Covid-19 restrictions mean that for most, we will spend the majority of our time locked in, locked up and locked down. How this translates… a desire and a want, a very real need for green open space. Scraps of greenery the world over became the go-to for so many of us. Especially those that didn’t have the luxury of any outside space at all, be that a back yard, a garden or a balcony of sorts. Parks, woodlands and fields and if you were lucky enough, the vast open expanse of a beach and some waves made all the difference.
When days were good, we clung to it for the sake of our mental health. When days felt heavy, tiresome or low… it could be difficult to make it outside at all. Sometimes, especially during the earlier part of 2021 when lockdown 3 took hold, those were the days I struggled the most. When I didn’t get outside. I wasn’t getting any exercise. A lack of fresh air and perhaps a lack of fresh thinking. It was tough and the whole of me, both mentally and physically felt it.
A low mood can leave you feeling low in energy and that in turn, can lower your mood and so the cycle begins. The ongoing health benefits of exercise are well documented and we know that regular exercise can boost your mood. In fact, exercise is often prescribed by GPs as part of a treatment plan for a range of conditions including low to moderate depression. Getting regular exercise does not have to mean turning into a gym bunny! A brisk 10 minute walk a day can do wonders for the heart and the mind. As can a spot of gardening, some vigorous housework, riding a bike or even pushing a lawnmower!
The positive effect that nature has on our mood and our sense of wellbeing is only now beginning to be understood. Conditions such as depression, anxiety and mood disorders are all thought to benefit from having access to green and open space. Access to nature is also found to improve sleep, reduce stress and increase happiness. So much so that doctors are now prescribing bird-watching and beach walks as a way of treating mental health conditions.
So what is it about nature that makes it such a valuable and important source of nourishment? Living near a green open space means you are more likely to get outside and take some form of exercise that day. And socially, it’s that human interaction piece that makes all the difference. Human connections that are maintained and cultivated through a shared walk, a group chat with friends, picnicking or playgrounds. Being part of a supportive community has never been more important or more relevant. And we know that sense of community, sense of purpose, sense of belonging is crucial for everyone's mental health.
If you’d like to hear more about how we can help you to become more aware of yourself and your surroundings, feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you haven't listened to my colleague Rachael Forsberg's relaxation podcast yet, you can check it out here also.