N is for Nature
Updated: Aug 29, 2022
“If I were to name the three most precious resources of life, I should say books, friends, and nature. And the greatest of these, at least the most constant and always at hand, is nature”. John Burroughs
We are spending an increasing amount of time indoors and online, but studies show that we need the complete opposite to help our brains and bodies to stay healthy. According to one Finnish study, spending just 15 minutes sitting in nature helped people feel psychologically restored and those results were even faster when that time was spent walking.
“Just being surrounded by bountiful nature, rejuvenates and inspires us.”
EO wilson (Theory of biophilia)
Spending time in the sun also helps your body create vitamin D which studies have shown may help prevent cancer, osteoporosis, and heart attacks. Being outside also strengthens your immune system generally. There are studies that show that some trees emit invisible chemicals known as phytoncides that have the potential to reduce stress hormones like cortisol, lower blood pressure and improve immunity. Another Japanese study showed women who spent six hours in the woods over a two-day period increased their white blood cells, which fight viruses, and the effect lasted about a week after the experiment had finished.
“When we spend time outside in beautiful places, a part of our brain called the subgenual prefrontal cortex, quiets down, and this is the part of the brain that is associated with negative self-reported rumination.” Florence Williams
Technology and advertising are constantly pulling for our attention. We rely heavily on higher order cognitive functions including selective attention, problem solving, inhibition, and multi-tasking in our modern technology-rich society. Many scientists believe our brains were not made for this kind of information bombardment, and it is this that can lead to a mental overload, mental fatigue, a sense of being overwhelmed, burnout etc requiring ‘Attention Restoration Theory’ to get back to a normal, healthy state.
“Nature itself is the best physician.” Hippocrates
David L Strayer (researcher) believes that being in nature restores depleted attention circuits, which can then help us be more open to creativity and problem-solving.
“If you’ve been using your brain to multitask—as most of us do most of the day—and then you set that aside and go on a walk, without all of the gadgets, you’ve let the prefrontal cortex recover....and that’s when we see these bursts in creativity, problem-solving, and feelings of well-being.” David Strayer
When we spend too much time engaging with technology and multitasking we place demands on executive attention to switch amongst tasks, maintain task goals, and distinguish between and inhibit irrelevant actions or cognitions. ART suggests that positive interactions with nature are particularly effective in replenishing depleted attentional resources and has specific restorative effects on the prefrontal cortex-mediated executive attentional system, which can become depleted with overuse.
“When you use your cell phone to talk, text, shoot photos, or whatever else you can do with your cell phone, you’re tapping the prefrontal cortex and causing reductions in cognitive resources.” David Strayer
Our daily environment is often filled with constant noise (horns, ringing phones, alarms, television, etc.) fighting for our attention; natural environments, in contrast, are associated with a quiet, natural beauty/intrigue etc which allow the executive attentional system to replenish.
“Longer term studies looking at brain activity of people after three days of being in nature (without any technology) reveal lower levels of theta activity suggesting that their brains had rested.” David Strayer
Everything we see, hear, or experience at any moment changes our mood and the responses and functioning of our nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. As we spend more time interacting with media and technology and less time outside immersed in nature, it has ramifications for our physical and mental health and cognition.
“And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” John Muir
There are lots of ways in which spending time in nature can be positive for our mental health and wellbeing. A study from the University of Michigan, for example, showed participants who took a memory test and then walked in nature did 20% better than those who took the test and then took a walk around the city
“Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” John Muir
New research is adding to our understanding of how our natural environment affects our mental health, which in turn impacts our bodies, all the time. The reasons why time spent in nature has this effect on us are complex and still being understood, but are often related to how our senses connect us to the environment around us, from the shapes in nature we see to the scents that trees give off and the curiosity that nature can stimulate which helps our minds rest.
“Place your hands into soil to feel grounded. Wade in water to feel emotionally healed. Fill your lungs with fresh air to feel mentally clear. Raise your face to the heat of the sun and connect with that fire to feel your own immense power” Victoria Erickson
Spending time outside in green spaces or bringing nature into your everyday life (growing food or flowers, exercising outdoors, being around animals or even viewing scenes of nature ) can benefit both your mental and physical wellbeing by reducing anger, anxiety, fear and stress and increasing positive feelings and your sense of well-being. Nature has the power to affect everybody positively regardless of age, culture or physical health (eg those with loss of vision, hearing or mobility) so it is essential that everyone can access nature, whatever their circumstances.
"Nature's way of communicating is non verbal. It communicates on a sensory level, and the only way in which we can truly understand what nature is saying is by experiencing this communication through our bodies" Tabitha Jayne
Research into ‘ecotherapy’ (a type of formal treatment which involves doing activities outside in nature) has shown it can help with mild to moderate depression. Being outside in natural light can also be helpful if you experience ‘SAD’ (Seasonal Affective disorder) a type of depression that affects people during particular seasons or times of year.
“Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are.” Gretel Ehrlich
Exposure to nature not only makes you feel better emotionally and contributes to your physical wellbeing but according to scientists (Stamatakis and Mitchell) it may even reduce mortality. Research done in hospitals, offices, and schools has found that even one simple plant in a room can have a significant impact on stress and anxiety.
“When you bring your attention to a stone, a tree or an animal, something of its essence transmits itself to you. You can sense how still it is and in doing so the same stillness rises within you. You can sense how deeply it rests in being, completely one with what it is and where it is, in realizing this, you too come to a place or rest deep within yourself.”
Nature can also help us cope with pain levels because we are genetically programmed to find trees, plants, water, and other nature elements engrossing and when we are absorbed by nature we become distracted from our pain and discomfort.
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”
Time spent with nature has the added bonus of enhancing our ability to pay attention. Our inherent interest in nature and our natural tendency to focus on what we are experiencing provides a respite for our overactive minds, and helps renew and refresh our attention.
Once we are paying better attention, studies show (Kuo and Coley) that there will be an improvement in our connection with others and the world around us. Other studies linked to urban planning suggest that public housing areas that have trees and green space around buildings show residents have better connections, a sense of community and are more concerned with supporting each other. In addition there is a reduced risk of crime and a general better capacity to cope with life’s demands.
“It’s the idea that people living close to nature tend to be noble. It’s seeing all those sunsets that does it. You can’t watch a sunset and then go off and set fire to your neighbour’s tepee. Living close to nature is wonderful for your mental health.” Daniel Quinn
This experience of connection may be explained by studies that used MRIs to measure brain activity. When participants viewed nature scenes, the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love lit up, but when they viewed urban scenes, the parts of the brain associated with fear and anxiety were activated, supporting the idea that nature inspires feelings that connect us to each other and our environment.
“I go to nature to be soothed, healed and have my senses put in order.”
Nature has the power to teach us so much , one facet is described in these thoughts by Luke Finn:
“Take a tree for instance: From the moment a tree seed begins to germinate it has two goals:
1. To set its roots down as far as possible into the earth
2. To grow as tall as it possibly can
The tree is completely focused on reaching its full potential in whichever environment it happens to find itself in.
Now imagine a tree with a human mind. Would it grow as high as it possibly could?...Maybe More than likely it would begin to look at the other bigger trees with the nicer leaves and think I'll never be that big or beautiful. It would try to control how its leaves look the directions its branches grow the size of its trunk and it would probably freak out and try to hold onto it leaves in autumn
Our mind is designed to ensure survival not for reaching our full potential. So my message to you today is be like a tree: Set your roots deep Follow your heart And grow as high as you can.” Luke Finn
Nature is vital; it provides our life-support system and we cannot survive without it, yet nature around the world is increasingly under threat; trees are being destroyed, wildlife being decimated, pollution is causing devastating changes to the climate, even the nature in our own back gardens is suffering the same fate with green spaces being laid over for parking or construction and this is having a direct impact on our mental and physical health and the global health of the planet.
We need to fight for the restoration of our natural environments to restore our energy, to relieve the everyday stresses of our overscheduled lives, to increase our happiness and creativity and improve our sense of community and connections with others.
"The Universe is composed of subjects to be communed with, not objects to be exploited. Everything has its own voice. Thunder and lightening and stars and planets, flowers, birds, animals, trees―all these have voices, and they constitute a community of existence that is profoundly related." Thomas Berry
Some questions to think about/or discuss below:
How can you increase the amount of time that you intentionally expose yourself to nature?
What can you do practically to restore natural spaces locally; at home, in your neighbourhood, in the wider community, further afield and in so doing improve your health, the health of others and the planet we all share?
“In every walk with nature,
one receives far more than he seeks"
If you want to explore this subject further, here are a few links to get you started
Lee I, Choi H, Bang KS, Kim S, Song MK, Lee B. Effects of forest therapy on depressive symptoms among adults: A systematic review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017
Houlden V, Weich S, de Albuquerque JP, Jarvis S, Rees K. The relationship between greenspace and the mental wellbeing of adults: A systematic review.
James P, Banay RF, Hart JE, Laden F. A Review of the Health Benefits of Greenness. Curr Epidemiol Reports.
McMahan EA, Estes D. The effect of contact with natural environments on positive and negative affect: A meta-analysis. J Posit Psychol. 2015
Kondo MC, Fluehr JM, McKeon T, Branas CC. Urban green space and its impact on human health. Vol. 15, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2018. p. 445.
Rebar AL, Stanton R, Geard D, Short C, Duncan MJ, Vandelanotte C. A meta meta-analysis of the effect of physical activity on depression and anxiety in non-clinical adult populations. Health Psychol Rev. 2015
Bowler DE, Buyung-Ali LM, Knight TM, Pullin AS. A systematic review of evidence for the added benefits to health of exposure to natural environments. BMC Public Health. 2010
Barton J, Pretty J. What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improving mental health? A multi-study analysis. Environ Sci Technol. 2010