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Nature’s impact on our health and well-being

If you’ve ever seen children playing in nature, you’d have noticed how they marvel and find real joy in being in touch with different elements in the natural environment. They’ll collect sticks and pieces of bark to take home, wonder at the different coloured leaves and flowers, and enjoy watching birds soar through the sky. It really is beautiful to see their curiosity and excitement as they sift through soil with their hands, smell different flowers, and use their imagination to create games with the elements around them. Although most of us lose this innocent wonder and appreciation as we grow older, one thing that doesn’t change is our instinctual, intimate connection with nature.

Recently, in my work with clients, I’m encountering increasing numbers of people who feel impacted negatively by the fast-paced lives they’re living, coupled with a lack of physical, natural space in which they can feel free and at peace. My curiosity about my clients’ experiences has led me to explore what nature can offer us in terms of a refuge from the stresses of modern living. The result of this exploration has been quite overwhelming and revelatory. Research carried out over many decades supports the view that nature is not only beneficial for our physical and mental well-being, but it can protect and heal. The benefits of nature were discovered many years ago. In fact, the ancient Greeks built their healing centres in beautiful locations, knowing that nature would help in restoring mind, body and spirit. Likewise, psychiatric hospitals in early Victorian times were designed with large green areas for patients to walk through, as well as gardens and farms in which patients could work and interact with nature.  

Since nowadays most of us live in suburban, city locations, our access to nature on a daily basis is limited to parks, the trees and greenery which line our streets, or views of the sea. The importance of trees and greenery in these residential and city locations, however, is paramount. Not only do trees filter air pollution and release oxygen, they muffle traffic noise, protect us from harmful UV rays, keep us cool and decrease respiratory conditions such as asthma. Decades of research supports the view that nature also has a crucial part to play in restoring our mental energy, reducing the impact of stress and helping us regulate our emotions.

Some interesting benefits of nature on our well-being are detailed below:

Nature reduces feelings of anger and increases positive feelings

Being in nature helps to reduce tension, stress and anger, whilst promoting feelings of calm and happiness. An interesting study by Hartig et al (2003) investigated young people’s emotional state in four different environments – indoors or outdoors, and in an urban setting or out in nature. They studied their ability to pay attention, their emotional state, and physiological stress indicators. What they found was that there was a significantly positive impact of nature in restoring participants to a healthy psychological and physical state. The four main findings were:

  1. A room with a view of trees was better than a room without a view
  2. A walk in nature was better than an urban walk
  3. Attention increased in a nature walk and reduced in an urban walk
  4. A nature walk produced significantly more positive feelings and reduced anger when compared with an urban walk

We socialise more when surrounded by nature

Another research team in Chicago, Kuo and Sullivan (1998), compared people living in a large city apartment block, one group who had access to green spaces, and another without. Results showed that the group with trees nearby socialised more with neighbours, felt safer and experienced a stronger sense of community. Both children and adults gathered and interacted more in the green areas than the barren areas. There was also a significant decrease in violence and conflict in the blocks with green spaces. It was concluded that green spaces gave neighbours a pleasant space to interact and connect. In addition, the greenery created a more pleasant and calming environment, helping residents feel less stressed and tense, thus making them more open and friendly. The same study found that children played outdoors twice as much if trees were present, engaged more in creative play and interacted more with adults and other children.

Being in nature helps children and adults regulate their emotions, feel calmer and more focused

Two charities in the UK, RSPB Wildlife Charity and Nature Trust, commissioned studies which found that being in nature was just as important as a healthy diet and exercise. Urban landscapes and pollution have been found to increase stress and anxiety, lower academic performance in children and reduce attention and focus. In particular, children with behavioural issues and conditions such as ADHD benefit enormously from being in nature, helping them feel calmer and more focused (Bird 2007; Moss 2013).

Nature stimulates creativity

The different colours and smells, sounds and textures in our natural environment tend to stimulate our senses, often evoking memories and feelings we had long-forgotten or were not in touch with. The harmonious, calming aspect of nature can fill us with a sense of awe and wonder, allowing us to really feel present and less distracted by constant thoughts. This creates space for our imaginations to run wild and new ideas to emerge. In fact, Kaplan and Kaplan (1989) carried out studies which show that creativity was significantly stimulated after time spent in nature as compared with not having spent time in nature, proving once again the restorative impact of nature.

Nature can benefit those suffering from depression and anxiety

Walking in nature has long been considered as greatly beneficial for people suffering from depression and other mental health conditions. Apart from its calming effect, nature can restore mental equilibrium and soothe feelings of distress and pain. Research published in the Journal of Affective Disorders (2012) found that individuals with major depressive disorder who engaged in 50-minute walks in a natural setting showed significant memory span increases and improved mood when compared to participants who engaged in urban walks.

Being in nature improves self-esteem

Low-self esteem is linked to poor school and work performance, mental illness, suicide and substance abuse. Many studies show the positive impact of spending time in nature on people’s self-esteem, both in people experiencing mental health issues and those who are not. Being in nature triggers feelings of calm, joy, pleasure and happiness. A meta-study of 10 UK-based green exercise research projects involving 1252 participants with mental health issues (Barton and Pretty 2010) showed significant increases in mood and self-esteem after exercising in nature as compared to exercising in less natural environments.

Assuming I’ve convinced you of the enormous benefits of nature for your health and well-being, those of you living on this tiny island may be wondering how you’re going to get your regular nature fix. Well, you’ll be happy to know that whilst we don’t have enough green areas to enjoy, the sea and our coastal views are just as effective in maintaining balance and calm as green spaces are. I’d now like to give you a few ideas on how you can bring nature into your daily lives:

Walk mindfully – most of us race to our cars, hurry into work and don’t even notice what’s going on around us as we do so. Once a day, try to pay attention to your experience as you walk. Notice the feel of your feet touching the floor, the beautiful flowers in your neighbour’s front garden, the trees, big and small, which line the streets. Pay attention to the colours of the leaves, the sound of birds in the trees, and the cool breeze blowing against your skin as you walk. While you’re doing that, you’ll notice your mind growing increasingly silent.

Add a touch of green to your indoor space – whether you live in an apartment or house, go out and buy some plants. Depending on size, location and other logistical matters, fill your balcony or outside spaces with colourful flowers and different plants to create a small green area for you to enjoy. If plants won’t survive in your balcony, buy some indoor plants.

Go for regular walks by the sea, in a park or in the countryside – grab the dog, your friend, the kids, your partner, and get outside. Keep your phones in your pocket or bag and allow yourselves to switch off and enjoy your surroundings. Notice the sun reflecting on the water, or the colour of the trees, the clouds floating in the sky, and so on. Really pay special attention the beauty around you and be thankful for it.

Go for a swim in the sea – once you’ve done the jelly fish check and are convinced the coast is clear (or is it just me who does that?) allow your body to feel supported by the water. Float on your back and allow the water to hold your full weight. Feel the tension in your shoulders and arms float away with the tide as you unwind and relax.

Watch the sunset, or sunrise – this will depend entirely on whether you’re a morning person or a night owl. Whichever it is, get out there every so often and watch the beauty of nature unfold. I think there’s something very grounding and reassuring about seeing a new day start or a day come to an end. You can be assured that no matter what’s going on in your life, the sun will set at the end of a long day and will rise again the next morning.

Include nature in your holidays – even if you choose to visit a city when you go abroad, make some time to visit a park, a nature reserve, or any large green space. You can still spend time shopping or visiting the sights, but also allocate some time to indulge in nature, particularly an aspect of nature you don’t have a lot of in the place you live.

Replace an occasional gym session with exercise outdoors – as exciting as running on a treadmill may be, how about taking the run outdoors, along the seafront or anywhere you’re able to enjoy nice views or greenery? Not only will you be improving your physical health but you’ll be maximising the emotional benefits.

Go camping – Camping is really exciting and fun, especially for kids. You can star gaze, toast marshmallows over a camp fire, bond with your fellow campers and really get away from it all.  

Green up your workspace – Slipping this article onto the desk of your boss may be a subtle way of reminding him or her that greenery can help staff feel less anxious and stressed and even increase productivity. Cha-ching. Suggest some pot plants in the office/main area, some nature scenes on the walls, team building activities outside, and so on.

You may be able to add some ideas of your own to what I’ve suggested above. Whatever way you choose to get in touch with nature, the next time you’re by the sea or a green space, I’d like to invite you to try to see your environment with the eyes of a child. I hope that in doing so, you’ll slowly start to feel more serene, happy and refreshed. Enjoy! 

Danjela Falzon - Malta therapy clinic

About Danjela Falzon

Danjela has been practising as a Psychotherapist since 2011, having read for a BSc in Psychology at Birkbeck, University of London, followed by a Masters in Gestalt Psychotherapy at GPTIM. She works therapeutically with individuals, adopting an approach which is warm and empathic, yet direct and challenging when necessary. She also works with groups, teaching mindfulness and providing support and guidance to reduce stress and anxiety.

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