May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a month dedicated to raising awareness about the importance of mental health in everyday life. The Mental Health Foundation began Mental Health Awareness Week 21 years ago, and each year a new theme is chosen – this year it’s loneliness. This week provides an opportunity for the entire UK to focus on achieving excellent mental health, and it’s now one of the most well-known awareness weeks in the UK and around the world. This blog looks at the opportunity to connect with nature and the incredible benefit it plays on our mental health.
What’s the evidence?
Nature and the natural world around us, plays an essential role in improving our mental and emotional well-being.
Nature has surrounded us for all of human history, but sadly many of us fail to fully appreciate the natural world around us and the benefits it can bring.
A wildlife-rich environment, according to research, can boost both our physical and mental health. Simply being outside in natural light can be really beneficial to our mental health and improving our mood.
Various studies have found that different types of exposures to nature are linked to mental health benefits (Bratman et al., 2019; Berman et al., 2008), and research shows that our brains actually respond differently in natural surroundings and we become calmer.
Ways to connect with nature
Mindfulness – Try to observe your surroundings. This could be watching your favourite flowers blossom, listening to the birds in the trees, or even watching the clouds move. Simply sit with nature for a few minutes each day in whatever way is meaningful for you.
Get creative within your natural surroundings – there are many different ways to get creative with nature, this can be through wildlife photography and painting or drawing the landscape in front of you, or a bird in your garden.
Outdoor exercise – regular exercise has been shown to improve mental health, helping you relax, improving memory, promoting better sleep, and improving general mood. To get some fresh air, go for daily walks, jogs, or cycles, or even try gardening. The Wildlife Trusts have some great ideas to introduce wildlife and nature into your own garden, including how to build a pond, how to attract butterflies to your garden, how to make a hedge for wildlife, and so many more ideas to try.
During lockdown, enjoying nature helped us to escape the effects of the long months of the pandemic, and millions of the UK public turned to nature. Research carried out by the Mental Health Foundation showed that “going for walks was one of our top coping strategies and 45% reported being in green spaces had been vital for their mental health”.
The importance of nature in learning:
Forest schools are a relatively new concept in the UK. They provide an outdoor learning environment where children learn problem solving skills and explore the natural environment. Spending time within nature can actually reduce anxiety in young children (Cudworth and Lumber, 2021).
The new curriculum in Wales and its Four Core Purposes align themselves particularly well to the concept of Forest School Philosophy; particularly the concept of creating ethically informed citizens of the future and the next generation of custodians of our environment.
Mental health, nature and me
I am very lucky that my job allows me to get outdoors and spend time in natural environments. I have been privileged to carry out my work in a variety of different habitats and catch glimpses of the wonderful wildlife we have in Wales.
Outside my job, I like to go for long walks in the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia which really helps clear my mind, relax, whilst improving my fitness all at the same time!
One of my favourite walks in the Brecon Beacons starts at Llanthony Priory in the Vale of Ewyas, heading up Hatterall Hill from the Abbey and reaching the ridge at the top. Part of this forms Offas Dyke. Once you walk along the ridge and head down the valley, you reach Capel Y Ffin, and then take a quiet country road back to Llanthony Priory.
Wild camping after a long walk is a perfect way to calm my mind; being in the middle of nowhere, alone, helps to focus my mind on the present moment and everything around me. I feel a great sense of accomplishment when I set up my tent at the end of a long days walk.
At home, I am lucky to live in the country, and walk just outside my front door to de-stress. No matter what time of year it is I can experience the beauty of nature first-hand during every season. In winter, I appreciate the early morning frosts, and in spring I like to see the flowers come out. It’s a great opportunity to improve my plant ID skills too. Being outside and spending time in nature encourages me to take time away from technological devices including my phone, TV, and computer, and allows me to live in the present moment and recharge from the stresses of everyday life.
Bratman, G.N., Anderson, C.B., Berman, M.G., Cochran, B., De Vries, S., Flanders, J., Folke, C., Frumkin, H., Gross, J.J., Hartig, T. and Kahn Jr, P.H., 2019. Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective. Science advances, 5(7), p.eaax0903.
Berman, M.G., Jonides, J. and Kaplan, S., 2008. The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological science, 19(12), pp.1207-1212.
Cudworth, D. and Lumber, R., 2021. The importance of Forest School and the pathways to nature connection. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education, 24(1), pp.71-85.
Wildlifetrusts.org. 2022. Wildlife gardening | The Wildlife Trusts. Available at: https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/gardening
Madeleine Anderson, Assistant Ecologist