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Nature Can Help Get Us Through This Mental Health Crisis

As concern grows over the mental health impact of Covid-19 around the world, there’s one universal, all-encompassing force that seems to get overlooked in its role as a solution: nature.

Nature is omnipresent. Or at least, it was. With over half the world in some sort of lockdown confinement, it’s maybe not quite as accessible as it once was.

There are ways around that.

It is possible for technology to increase our access to nature experience, but first, let’s understand why nature really is the beating heart of our mental health and well-being.

Nature plays a prominent role in cultivating a healthy state of mind

“Biophilia” describes the love we have for nature. It was a term first introduced by biologist and naturalist Edward Wilson in 1984. Wilson suggested that a strong emotional bond exists between human beings and other organisms, which leads us to seek connections with nature.

Though far from being the first person to link nature to positive emotions like love, Wilson is a noteworthy visionary and early contributor to the growing school of research on nature and mental well-being. In a 2015 interview, Wilson spoke out on the importance of getting urbanized populations back into natural landscapes:

When people state the common belief that being in nature relaxes them, that it helps them recover from stress and tragedy, that it’s a healing process to be in nature, we now know there’s a solid basis for that […] it’s good for the human mind to be able to live and experience in really natural situations.

So what is it about nature that encourages the recovery of our mental well-being?

To find out, we can turn to the attention restoration theory, which holds that spending time in nature can help us restore our capacity to concentrate— whereas hectic, urban surroundings often serve to drain our energy and attention span.

Nature has also been shown to promote happiness, social interactions, and a sense of meaning and purpose.

Think about it for a second: Have you ever felt burnt out while watching a sunset? Probably not. On the flip side, has an idea suddenly come into focus as you absent-mindedly gaze at the countryside through a train window? Quite possibly.

Attention restoration theory suggests that when we’re immersed in nature, we allow ourselves to be “away.” By paying involuntary attention to our surroundings, we feel truly compatible with our setting: Our walls come down, and we really start to see things clearly.

But it’s not just about clarity of mind.

Nature has also been shown to promote happiness, social interactions, and a sense of meaning and purpose. Simply walking through a natural environment, for example, is associated with a reduction in negative thoughts. It’s also linked to improved cognitive function, which supports improved memory and attention. Connection with nature has even been linked to enhanced school performance, imagination, and creativity in children.

These are just a few examples of the beneficial effects of nature on mental well-being. You could likely spend days — if not weeks — reading paper after paper, and journal after journal recounting studies on how nature is incredible medicine. Whatever you read, the findings would overwhelmingly be the same: Nature is fundamental for well-being.

Time spent in nature may help prevent mental illness

Even before the arrival of Covid-19, Gallup’s Global Emotions Report of 2019 found that 35% of people are stressed and anger levels are at an all-time high. Considering that one in four people is likely to experience ill mental health in any given year, discussions of a “global epidemic” of mental illness are nothing new. And now, as we face down a deadly pandemic, it’s fair to conclude that our mental health is even worse off.

By reducing stress levels, exposure to nature may lower a person’s risk of developing depression and other mental illnesses. There is also some evidence to suggest that time in nature is associated with a decreased risk of developing anxiety disorders and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Spending time in nature has certainly been shown to reduce the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. It’s also been associated with lower blood pressure.

But here comes the challenge: As evidence mounts for the importance of nature to our well-being, opportunities to experience it are dwindling, lockdown aside.

In pre-Covid life, we were already spending less and less time outside. In the U.K., 22 hours (or 90% of the day) is spent inside, and in the U.S., indoor hours can account for as much as 93% of each day. Given this incredible imbalance, it would be wrong to blame the growing mental health challenges on Covid-19 alone.

Countering the challenge of urbanization and lockdown

In 2018, 55% of the world’s population lived in urban environments, and by 2050, this proportion is expected to rise to 68%. That’s two out of every three people potentially living in homes lacking outdoor space, with less access to green areas and breathing increasingly polluted air.

More of us spend more time surrounded by brick and concrete than by grass and trees. This has led some advocates to suggest that “nature deficit disorder” is a real threat to our health.

To counter the impact of nature deficit disorder, some mental health professionals are starting to prescribe means of connecting with nature. In Japan, forest bathing (or Shinrin Yoku) has been practiced since the 1980s, with the aim of reconnecting people with nature and offsetting the effects of increasingly pressurized, high-tech lifestyles. In the U.K., doctors have been handing out “green prescriptions,” with recommendations that patients with a variety of health concerns spend more time in nature.

Of course, the current pandemic has curtailed many of these approaches. Our outdoor movements may be limited as we live through lockdown, or in some cases, we may find ourselves entirely housebound. It’s a problem most felt by the vulnerable, the elderly, and the self-isolating.

But here’s the good part. You don’t have to be physically present in nature to reap its benefits. Observing a nature image on your desktop, laptop, phone, or tablet screen can be enough to lower stress levels. And natural ambient sounds have been shown to have a positive impact on relieving stress, anxiety, and improving productivity.

Simply walking through a natural environment… is associated with a reduction in negative thoughts.

Technology can bring nature into our everyday life

There will never be a full substitute for the real thing, but technology can get us closer. Peter Kahm, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington puts the challenge perfectly:

We need to deepen the forms of interaction with nature and make it more immersive.

Immersive is the key word. We don’t need peripheral nature experiences, but experiences that truly reflect reality.

This challenge can be tackled with technology. We’re now able to capture and replay visuals and audio in extraordinary detail — such that the virtual and the real can be almost impossible to differentiate.

Access doesn’t require consumers to make huge investments in new technology. Immersive 3D sounds can be played through conventional headphones, meaning you don’t just hear sound in front, behind, and to your side — but also above and below.

Many smartphones and tablets now support 4K video footage too, meaning visual playback is also remarkably realistic.

Technology can recreate nature experiences for those who can’t be outside, as well as enable new nature experiences for everyone else. Commuting, air travel, working indoors, and falling asleep at night are prime examples of times when it’s generally not possible to immerse ourselves in nature. Today’s self-isolation and lockdown is an obvious new addition. We must embrace technology to help us.

Nature is the beating heart of human well-being

Mental health is incredibly complex. I do not present nature as the solution, but rather a critical piece of enhanced mental well-being.

For everyone, regardless of how frequently you experience or immerse yourself in nature, one thing holds true: Nature has always been our shared home. We must protect it, and let it nourish and revitalize us. It is where we are likely to find our happiest and healthiest state of mind. And that is something that’s unlikely to change.

This article was first published in Elemental on 30th April 2020