Empirical, theoretical and anecdotal evidence demonstrates contact with nature positively impacts blood pressure, cholesterol, outlook on life and stress-reduction *
For approximately 200,000 years, since the dawn of homo sapiens, we lived outside. We drew sustenance from the land and sought shelter in its resources. However, over the past 200 years we have migrated inside, nestling inside our four walls, finding solace in our technology, and intensively farming so that we can have our every want and whim catered. From my perspective, our technological advances are inversely proportional to our mental health - we produce cooler "stuff" at the expense of our minds.
Our reference to nature is an all-inclusive term. Whilst thoughts of faraway lands, pristine beaches and forested woodland may spring to mind, nature includes those places nearer and dearer, such as our gardens, parks and even our indoor potted plants. We refer to nature in both an urban and rural context.
Whilst in Hawaii, I had pretty patchy wifi from my RV, and eventually completely gave up trying to use it. With my phone in airplane mode (avoiding all those bloody roaming charges), I was for all intents and purposes totally unplugged. I spent my days weeding, harvesting, planting, running, swimming, practising yoga, preparing my meals from produce freshly picked from the farm and hiking. You can imagine I felt pretty good. The most significant change I felt was in my emotional health, which inspired me to consider that my perfect paradise provided more then just a great tan.
Vitamin N deficiency
It was not hard to locate the source of the problem. Humans are suffering from a lack of Vitamin N (Nature) - a term coined by Richard Louv in his book Vitamin N: An essential guide to a nature rich life. In fact, a quick google search shows a sea of research on the connection between nature and our health (physical and emotional). The exponential increase in the pace of our lives, the increasing pressures, the burden of an inflating population has resulted in more of us "burning out" or becoming mentally fatigued. In order for us to surpass this burn out, we need restorative experiences. And there is no better restorative experience then nature.
Increased pressure -> Stress -> Mental fatigue -> Requirement for restorative experiences
What nature can do for you
Signs you are mentally fatigued
- Reduction in anxiety and stress
- Improvement of mood
- Improvement of self-esteem
- Improvement of psychological wellbeing
- Improvement in attention and concentration
- Reduction in symptoms of ADHD in children
- Increase in cognitive restoration
- Improvements to physical health
- Promotion of physical activity
- Reduction of crime rates
- Increased immunity
- Improved perceptions of general health
- Increased social contact
- Difficulty concentrating
- Highly susceptible to distraction
- Find it difficult to make decisions
- Impatient and inclined to make risky choices
- Irritable and less likely than usual to help someone in distress
- Have difficulty either planning or carrying out previously made plans
- Reduced creativity and effectiveness
- Possibility of excess alcohol consumption and drug abuse
During my research I was thrilled to see a plethora of academic, peer reviewed studies on the connection between nature and health, and the damage that has arisen as the result of the ever expanding vast void between us and our roots. What I found most fascinating was how healing nature could be, even in the most acutely stressful environments and experiences, as discussed below.
Prison Inmates with natural views from their cells required far less medical attention and exhibited lower stress, then their counterparts who stared at a brick wall throughout their incarceration. (Moore, 1981; West, 1985). Gardening projects introduced to inmates have had a profound impact on their wellbeing. The Eden Project in the UK partnered with Dartmoor Prison and began the Growing for Life initiative. There are other initiatives in the USA, such as the Insight Garden Program in California, where studies have found lower reoffending rates, improvement in self-control and self-identification (crucial for rehabilitation), reduction in stress and a deeper environmental understanding.
Schools Students with environmentally focused curriculums scored higher in 72% of academic assessments (including reading, science and maths), compared with their counterparts in traditional classrooms teaching environments. (Dillon et al., 2006). Students who learn within a natural environment gained education, health and psychological benefits, as well as attaining higher social skills. (Kings College, 2011). An observation from an outreach programme, established in Wales in 2006, was that the children were more "aware of the world around them and the idea that human activity can have noticeable effects, even on a local scale in the school garden". (Cowell and Watkins, 2007). I know plenty of adults who are yet to reach this profound conclusion.
University This can be a very stressful time in a young persons life, the first time they are truly independent and responsible for their own education and wellbeing. A test conducted on university students showed that those with a natural view performed better than their counterparts who did not have a natural view from their dormitories (Tennessen and Cimprich, 1995). Students also exhibited improved cognitive functioning when undergoing memory testing, just by taking a walk in nature. (Berman et al,. 2008).
Workplace People who work in offices, with unnatural (built) views are at higher risk of physical and emotional health problems resulting from their inert, sit-down lifestyle and stressful work environments. Those who have access to nature in the workplace benefit greatly, through lower levels of stress and higher job satisfaction. These employees also reported fewer ailments. (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989). Leather et al (1998) also found that "a view of natural elements (i.e., trees, vegetation, plants, and foliage) was found to buffer the negative impact of job stress on intention to quit and to have a similar, albeit marginal, effect on general well-being". Even a simple picture of a natural scene was shown to alleviate cardiovascular issues, through reduced heart rate and blood pressure (Laumann et al., 2003; Pretty et al., 2005; Brown, Barton and Gladwell, 2013; Duncan et al., 2014).
Hospitals Post-operative patients in recovery from gallbladder surgery, who had a natural view of trees, faired much better than those who had a view of a brick wall from their wards. They had faster recovery periods, were therefore discharged faster, and had a lower requirement for pain medication, and even exhibited less post-operative complications, compared with their counterparts (recovering from the same surgery) who had an unnatural, built view (Ulrich, 1984). The quality of the natural view is also of significant importance to the recovery of patients as shown by Verderber (1986). The brand new cancer centre within Guy's Hospital, London, had patient care and wellbeing at the heart of its design. The large floor to ceiling windows, allow in plenty of natural sunlight. Sounds of the rainforest emanate throughout the elevators. Even the artwork featured throughout the hospital integrates nature to aid in the healing and overall wellbeing of patients and caregivers.
Recovery Those in recovery have exhibited improved cognitive functioning and increased vigour as a direct result of partaking in regular natural, restorative exercises post-surgery. Women recovering from breast cancer surgery who partook in three 20 minute "restorative" practices (most opted for nature based exercises, such as gardening), had improved directed attention, whereas the other control group received no intervention or restorative care. It was found that those in the "restorative" group were more likely to return to work and take up new activities. Spending time in forests has been shown to increase levels of Natural Killer (NK) cells, a type of white blood cell that forms part of our immune system and is responsible for rejecting tumors and infected cells. Trees and plants emit phytoncide, a substance to protect themselves from insects and germs, but has also been shown to significantly increase NK cells. (Li et al., 2009). You may recall the miraculous recoveries made by patients sent to the countryside throughout history...
Mental health Nature therapy is increasingly being used as a form of therapy to assist people struggling with an array of mental health issues, from children with ADHD, to those suffering with depression and anxiety. These conditions are commonplace, and as predicted by the World Bank, by 2020, depression will be the second most common cause of disability in the developed world (World Bank, 1993). Mental health problems cost the UK economy over £100 billion pounds (more than crime), which includes health and social costs as well as loss of output in the economy from sick days and unemployment (The Centre for Mental Health, 2010). A huge array of studies have shown how natural experiences significantly reduce stress and anxiety and lower cortisol levels (the body's stress hormone). A study conducted in Japan concluded that habitual walking in forest environments can reduce blood pressure by alleviating sympathetic nervous system activity (our fight-or-flight stress response) and increasing the parasympathetic nervous system activity (our restful subconscious system). (Li et al., 2011).
the call of the wilde
Hopefully we have given you some food for thought here, and maybe when you next find yourself booking those beach breaks and tropical treks you will consider that we are innately being called back to the wilde...
*As discussed in the following sources: (Moore, 1981; Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989; Hartig et al., 1991; Ulrich et al., 1991a; Ulrich et al., 1991b; Kaplan, 1992a; Rohde and Kendle, 1994; Lewis, 1996; Leather et al., 1998; Parsons, et al., 1998).
Brown DK, Barton JL and Gladwell VF (2013). Viewing nature scenes positively affects recovery of autonomic function following acute mental stress. Environmental Science and Technology, 47: 5562-5569.
Cowell, D. & Watkins, R. (2007), Get out of the classroom to study climate change - the ‘Spring Bulbs for Schools’ project.
Dillon J, Rickinson M, Teamey K, Morris M, Choi MY, Sanders D and Bene eld P (2006). The value of outdoor learning: evidence from research in the UK and elsewhere. Social Sciences Review, 87: 107-111.
Duncan MJ, Clarke ND, Birch SL, Tallis J, Hankey J et al. (2014). The effect of green exercise on blood pressure, heart rate and mood state in primary school children. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 11: 3678-3688.
Kaplan, R. and Kaplan, S. (1989) The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York.
Kings College (2011). Understanding the diverse bene ts of learning in natural environments. London: Kings College.
Laumann K, Garling T and Stormark KM (2003). Selective attention and heart rate responses to natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 23: 125-134.
Li, Q., Otsuka, T., Kobayashi, M., Wakayama, Y., Inagaki, H., Katsumata, M., Hirata, Y., Li, Y., Hirata, K., Shimizu, T., Suzuki, H., Kawada, T. and Kagawa, T. (2011). Acute effects of walking in forest environments on cardiovascular and metabolic parameters. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 111(11), pp.2845-2853.
Li, Q., Kobayashi, M., Wakayama, Y., Inagaki, H., Katsumata, M., Hirata, Y., Hirata, K., Shimizu, T., Kawada, T., Park, B., Ohira, T., Kagawa, T. and Miyazaki, Y. (2009). Effect of Phytoncide from Trees on Human Natural Killer Cell Function. International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology, 22(4), pp.951-959.
Marc G. Berman, John Jonides, Stephen Kaplan (2008). The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature. Psychological Science 19, pp.1207–1212.
Moore, E. O. (1981) A prison environment's effect on health care service demands. Journal of Environmental Systems, 11, 17–34
Pretty J, Peacock J, Sellens M and Griffn M (2005). The mental and physical health outcomes of green exercise. International Journal of Environmental Health Research, 15: 319-337.
Tennessen, C. M. and Cimprich, B. (1995) Views to nature: effects on attention. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 77–85.
West MJ (1985). Landscape views and stress response in the prison environment. Sea le: Department of Landscape, Architecture. University of Washington.