How a healthy symbiosis between our wellbeing and our world could potentially bolster both.
We’re in a crisis. Nay, two crises. Our minds are as polluted as our rivers. Our resilience depleting like ice caps. Our thoughts more cluttered than landfill. “Nature” is the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, which has blown the need for a mutual wind-of-change to the forefront of curious.earth’s minds.
The great outdoors has long been credited for its ability to help blow off some steam, some cobwebs and some hairstyles if Bridget Jones’ is anything to go by. That is, the benefit to mood and stress levels which nature can have is well documented. But, it turns out that it’s not just the breaking up of your workday which makes a stroll outside beneficial, it’s the physiological changes that occur because of the environment itself you are walking in which acts as the agent to your wellness.
What’s the science saying?
The American Psychological Association credits “nature and biodiversity” as an essential antidote to more than one of our mental health foibles…
Rumination: Harvard Medical School found that those who engage with regular walks in nature have lower activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the region which is active during rumination.
Stress hormones: Calming nature sounds or even outdoor silence, can lower blood pressure by supressing the release of the stress hormone, cortisol.
Resilience: Wild water swimming, (or any cold water therapy in fact), takes advantage of our body’s ability to adapt to harsher conditions, and so as a result, we become more resistant to stressors.
Energy and mood: Cold water and weather can actually act in a similar way to electroshock therapy by jolting the electrical impulses in your nervous system to increase alertness, clarity, and energy levels. Endorphins are also released, leading to feelings of well-being and optimism.
Increased levels of vitamin D from spring-summer light could also contribute to improved fatigue levels as clinical trials suggest.
The above impacts, are leading to a rise in “green social prescribing” also known as Ecotherapy – with the government funding seven pilot sites before potentially making this a mainstream NHS treatment.
What is Ecotherapy?
According to Mind, ecotherapy is a “formal type of therapeutic treatment which involves doing outdoor activities in nature.” This can take any number of forms, but generally could:
- be led by trained professionals (sometimes therapists), who are there to support
- be focussed on doing a particular activity, rather than on health itself
- take place in a green environment
- will be related to exploring and appreciating the natural world
- involve spending time with other people
Source: Masawa Fund
As a relatively new treatment, the prescription of distinct ecotherapy could take a while to trickle through, but the Mental Health Foundation point out that ecotherapy can be just as, if not more, effective when integrated into a healthcare provider’s “standard practice”
This is great news for the almost two thirds of people citing that being close to nature caused them to experience positive emotions during COVID lockdowns, with Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation, Mark Rowland, stating that:
“It was as if we were re-discovering at our most fragile point, our fundamental human need to connect with nature.”Mark Rowland, CEO, Mental Health Foundation
So happy days then, yeah?
The evidence of the above benefits continue to stack up – adding yet another good reason behind curious.earth’s mission to contribute to a healthier, greener, more biodiverse planet.
Yet, it’s the backwards hit to the planet’s health itself which is giving rise to a new facet in the shape of mental health concerns.
Enter: climate change anxiety.
Anxiety is an evolutionary response to a potential threat to survival. It focuses the mind and body, into Fight or Flight mode – taking energy from less crucial bodily functions such as digestion and bladder control (that primary school incident make sense now?), to power heightened levels of awareness, focus and oxygen to muscles required to flee.
Historically these threats were predators – but in this era, we’ve struggled to differentiate between the real or merely perceived threats ahead of us, resulting in prolonged instances of anxiety which can in turn, develop into chronic disorders. If the threat is in your head, a flight response can do nothing.
Perceived threats could be concerned with pretty much anything. My own anxiety used to prevail strongly at just the thought of catching a train – I can laugh now, but yikes, even fictitious trains from Platform 9 ¾ could have sent me spiralling a few years ago. My idiosyncrasies aside, climate change is consistently rising amongst the most common causes of Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) today.
Yet, unlike the Hogwarts Express, our increasingly unstable environment is a very real threat to human safety, and eliciting as authentic a response in the human psyche as any sabretooth tigers, cave bears or killer kangaroos. (yes, you read that right)
But is this response really a bad thing? Of course, persistent feelings of climate change anxiety may develop into a disorder which really is a bad thing. Sufferers report extreme experiences of fatalistic thinking, existential dread, guilt or fear concerning their carbon footprints/other personal impacts, grief for lost natural environments or wildlife or post traumatic stress from experiencing effects of climate change.
But, if more acute levels and duration of anxiety are felt, a naturally productive Fight or Flight response could be elicited.
That is, sufferers could be mobilised into action to prevent the further rise of the predatory beast of climate change. (and hopefully keep it as much as bay as the now latent flesh-eating marsupials)
What helpful ‘Fight’ response could climate change anxiety elicit, and can any of them help with the anxiety itself?
In this case, two problems could actually be better than one. Or to swap to another numerical idiom, two birds could be killed with one stone. (NB: curious.earth does not advocate the harming of non-metaphorical birds)
The fight against climate change, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss can, and is, being bolstered by a whole ream of activities for you to explore:
“Nature’s wellbeing is intrinsic to our own experience of health and wellbeing.”
Mental Health Foundation, 2021 Mental Health Awareness Week report
- Litter pickers – walking along the beach is proven particularly useful.
- Join community conservation or clean-up groups. Taking care of nature can help you feel that you’re doing your part, meet like-minded people – fostering a sense of achievement and community – both key aspects to a healthy mind.
- Care farming: involves looking after farm animals, growing crops or helping to manage woodland.
- ‘Green Gyms’: Combines physical exercise with protecting and caring for natural spaces. Find out more from The Conservation Volunteers (TCV)
- Briskly walk instead of driving: this saves carbon emissions and steady state exercise is cited as the most beneficial for the release of serotonin.
Fortunately, for the time poor – quality is better than quantity. Studies show that the duration spent amongst nature isn’t necessarily the most prominent factor to (environ)mental wellbeing. Even short, but truly engaged and connected moments within nature can have a more significant impact upon mental health.
So really, stop and smell the roses.
- Download the Mental Health Foundation’s top tips on connecting with nature to improve your mental health
- Read up on the Welsh Future Generations Wellbeing Act which has been established as a commitment to create a healthier, more resilient and responsible society – and write to your MP to ask for a similar commitment where you are!
- Keep an eye out for upcoming research from mental health non-profit, Grae Matta Foundation into the relationship between mental health and climate change.
Most importantly, if your mental health is being compromised for any reason, please:
- Speak to your GP or call 111,
- Contact the Samaritans on freephone 116 113 or,
- Text SHOUT to 85258
You don’t need to be in a crisis to do so, you might just fancy a chat or to hear about resources you personally could benefit from.
Here are some pointers which might help those conversations feel a bit less daunting.