by Tayler Milbury
How often do you find yourself taking a stroll through your community’s parks and trails or tending to indoor plants or outdoor gardens? As children, most often we were out the front door when the sun came up and reluctantly brought back inside for dinner and bedtime. Our childhood memories consist largely of hide-and-go-seek outdoors, treehouses, sidewalk chalk, snow forts, swimming, and more; so why, as teenagers and adults, do we now spend most of our day indoors? Our job, school, and household chores likely play a large part, but with the emerging research on the mental health benefits of nature, perhaps we should be challenging ourselves to find more time in the day to spend outside, or at the very least, bring nature inside to us.
During a global pandemic, it is more important than ever to be regularly checking in on our mental health and well-being. Like plants, humans have basic needs. Eating that extra serving of veggies, walking around the yard, and getting dressed in the morning can go a long way in improving our self-esteem, mood, and overall well-being. But sometimes, when we are feeling down, our normal habits can seem like large, daunting tasks – if you have felt like this during the Covid-19 pandemic, you’re not alone. Before we delve into the benefits of nature to our mental health, let’s talk a bit about mental health and emotions in general.
Just like everyone has physical health, we all have mental health too. We also all have anxiety. Anxiety is a term we often hear in everyday conversation; there is a difference, however, between the emotion of anxiety and an anxiety disorder. We all have the emotion of anxiety; we don’t all have an anxiety disorder, which is when the frequency and intensity in which one experiences the emotion of anxiety become disordered and disrupt many aspects of one’s life. It is normal for us all to experience anxiety from time to time; after all, it makes us aware of potential threats or danger which allows us to respond accordingly to protect ourselves. So, in the midst of a global pandemic, when you can’t see family and friends, when people are wearing masks in stores, when social media and the news are dominated by the topic of Covid-19, it is normal to feel anxious.
So how can nature help? Data from a 2013/2014 health and behaviour study on children suggests that spending time outdoors can serve as a protective factor for mental health. The study provided evidence that spending at least 30 minutes outside a week was associated with a 24% decrease in the occurrence of mental health symptoms in adolescent girls. But even more fascinating, is that our perception of the importance of spending time in, and being connected to, nature can influence the benefits to our mental health. This means that if we rank feeling connected to nature as being highly important in our lives, we are more likely to yield greater benefits in regard to our well-being. Findings from other studies support this – research suggests that brief exposure to nature can reduce stress and blood pressure, as well as increase self-esteem, cognitive functioning, and emotional well-being. In addition to this, an Australian self-report survey found an association between long visits to green spaces and lower rates of depression.
The use of nature to improve mental health is not a new concept. In the mid-20th century, hospitals often used gardening to improve the well-being of their patients. Gardening is a meaningful activity that often provides individuals with a state of tranquility and the ability to become grounded, both of which can lessen the symptoms of feeling anxious. Gardening, whether outdoors or indoors, teaches us to accept and let go of things we cannot control – such as the weather, rain, and temperature, all of which impact the growth of a plant. We learn through gardening to focus on growth and progress rather than immediate results; patience is a virtue. Taking care of a plant can also teach us about individuality and uniqueness; each kind of plant is different and has different needs, just like humans.
The next time you are feeling stressed, anxious, or just not like your usual self, go outside and take notice of you how feel after spending some time in nature. With a few months left of summer, now is a great time to start a garden, check out your local park, or even visit your childhood days and pick up some chalk; when the winter months arrive, bring nature inside to you by getting an indoor plant or two.
10 Mental Health Benefits of Gardening https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/think-act-be/201906/10-mental-health-benefits-gardening?eml
McMahan, E. A., & Estes, D. (2015). The Effect of Contact With Natural Environments on Positive and Negative Affect: A Meta- Analysis. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 10 (6). http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2014.994224
Sempik, J. (2010). Green care and mental health: Gardening and farming as health and social care. Mental Health and Social Inclusion, 14(3), 15-22. doi: http://dx.doi.org.proxy.hil.unb.ca/10.5042/mhsi.2010.0440
Shanahan, D., Bush, R., Gaston, K. et al. Health Benefits from Nature Experiences Depend on Dose. Sci Rep 6, 28551 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep28551
Why Connecting With Nature Elevates Your Mental Health