Even modest reminders of nature can help boost mental health during lockdown, research finds.
Nature can be experienced on a walk close to home, in the back yard or even indoors.
All have been shown to improve mental health and wellbeing and reduce anxiety.
Experiencing nature mindfully can help increase its effect, as can sharing memories of nature, thinking back to natural places that induce calm and sharing these stories with others.
Nature can help stop rumination — thinking about the causes and consequences of depressing events — a process common in depression.
Dr Kathleen Wolf, an expert on the health benefits of nature, said:
“Studies have proven that even the smallest bit of nature—a single tree, a small patch of flowers, a house plant—can generate health benefits.
Look closely in your neighborhood, and the bit of nature you may have taken for granted up until now may become the focus of your attention and help you feel better.”
Over the years, thousands of studies have shown the positive effect of nature on mental health.
As little as 20-minutes of nature can help to reduce stress, one study has found.
Gardens and backyards provide some with access to grass, bird song, leaves and flowers.
For those stuck indoors, though, potted plants or even photos or videos of nature can provide the necessary reminder.
Being mindful is key to getting the most out of nature, said Dr Wolf:
“It’s important to be mindful, commit to the activity and think about your observations while looking at these materials or elements of nature.
That means not merely scrolling through on your computer, but looking at photos or video streams with more intention.
It’s essentially nature-oriented meditation.”
Sharing experiences of nature with others is also powerful, said Dr Wolf:
“Even though we are physically distancing, it’s really important to our health to maintain our social connections.
There is evidence that people who are lonely or who are socially isolated can be prone to poorer health.
Nature might be a means, either by being outside a safe distance from others or by sharing stories with each other, of staying socially connected.”
Exposure to nature helps to stop people ruminating, a process of continuously worrying about the past and the future linked to mental health problems.
Professor Peter Kahn, an expert on environmental sciences, explained:
“In these times, I think our minds can be a little out of control.
Part of the effect of nature is that it can soften negative conditioned mental patterns.
If you can find nature, engage with it and get your heart rate down, then your mind begins to settle.
When your mind isn’t ruminating, it can then open to a wider world, where there’s great beauty and healing.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology (Hunter et al., 2019).