A major awakening occurred during the coronavirus outbreak, a shared realisation that affected many across the country: our wellbeing needs nature. Soon after people were required to stay indoors, isolate, work from home, and only enjoy an hour of the outdoors a day, the effects of detachment from nature set in. Residents were deprived of the calming restoration that comes from an outdoor, wild environment, and it notably affected their mental health.
Perhaps the clearest representation of this was the sudden and significant demand for homes with garden spaces. Alongside a substantial, teleworking-motivated shift that saw newly remote employees leave the confines of their urban homes and move to more pastoral, low-cost residences, was the sudden prioritisation of gardens. Nature, even a small outdoor area, had demonstrated its value.
Those who found themselves with a greater amount of free time appear to have spent a significant portion of it outdoors, with nearly 60% claiming that doing so helped improve their mental health. The number of outdoor activities also increased in popularity, with people taking up gardening and running, or even more niche activities like birdwatching, with the intention of being able to spend more time outdoors.
There is substantial evidence, much of it described prior to the initial COVID outbreak, that nature has a healing effect upon our mind. One of the earliest studies to demonstrate this effect was in 1991, which drew a conclusive link between walking outdoors, in green spaces, and an improvement in happiness and the recovery of mental fatigue.
In addition, exposure and immersion within nature improve physical health too. Wild environments have the potential to help lower blood pressure and easing muscle tension, in turn, working with bodies to reduce stress and tension. The inability to access this source of restoration, whether through the lack of parks and green spaces in an area or during the enforcement of lockdown, leads many to experience ailments without relief.
As our lives become increasingly modernised, with technology facilitating greater numbers of teleworking positions, social media becoming ubiquitous, and populations growing more substantially within cities, the need for these green spaces and access to outdoor spaces will increase too. COVID-related mental ill-health also contributes to this essential need for natural spaces with support services, such as Bristol Counselling and Psychotherapy, seeing an overwhelming demand for therapy sessions, a trend that continues as the NHS remains under pressure.
Natural spaces allow us to remove ourselves from endless notifications and digital entertainment. The slow growth of trees, calming tranquillity of rivers, and the beauty of vistas can each help centre our minds. Interacting with the wild, whether foraging wild food ingredients or adopting a countryside craft, also allows us to slow down, with activities such as whittling proven to relieve stress and anxiety by cultivating a focus.
Mental health is now one of the most important discussions occurring within society and, as we continue to improve our nation’s mental wellbeing, we must not forget the importance of outdoor and natural spaces that, alongside their numerous other benefits, especially those pertaining to an improved environment, help us to heal.