Annie Button, an independent writer, has written an article about the benefits of nature on mental health. Read the article below.
The mental health benefits of connecting with nature are well documented. Put bluntly, their importance can’t be promoted enough given the alarming levels of increasing detachment from the natural world that so many of us have been experiencing.
Mental health charities already fly an almighty flag when it comes to highlighting the importance of physical activity and embracing nature. So, it came as no surprise when this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week was entirely dedicated to the theme of ‘nature’, focusing on ways we can re-establish the clear link with good mental health and the positive impact achieved simply by spending more time outdoors.
Of course, none of this is news really. Historically, humans literally spent all their time in nature, while ‘feeling at one with nature’ is one of the central principles of Druid lore whose earliest records date back to around 50 BC! Even today, their ancient practices include many seasonal celebrations that are designed to help us attune to the natural cycle. What a contrast to today’s modern lifestyles in predominantly urban environments.
But all is not lost. Studies have shown that even small interactions with nature can make a big positive impact on our mood and mental health as well as our nervous system, endocrine system and immune system. Which is where that all-important daily walk comes into play, or any regular breaks taken outside, for that matter.
Take regular breaks
In the workplace, the pressure to continually perform to the best of our abilities inevitably leads to rising stress levels. Thankfully, managers and business owners are increasingly recognising that supportive working environments are key in helping team members deal with this.
Being able to take regular breaks during the working day is just one way that employees get a chance to rebalance both mentally and physically, coming back to the task refreshed and re-energised. This could be something as simple as getting up once an hour for a comfort break, leg stretch or to make a cup of tea, or taking their statutory 20-minute rest breaks.
Taking a short break from work and moving around helps to combat the known dangers associated with sedentary jobs, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, digestive issues, osteoporosis, back pain and muscle weakness, to mention a few. What’s more, switching off mentally from focused work is good for the brain as it reduces ‘decision fatigue’ and restores mental clarity and motivation.
Reduce your risk of mental stress
Next, add on the benefits of taking work breaks outside and see what happens. Interestingly, breaks spent in green spaces have been shown to reduce the risks of developing mental health issues. Combining nature with physical activity has the following benefits:
- Relaxation: ‘What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare,’ asks the famous poem Leisure by William Henry Davies. Taking the opportunity to switch off from the job and notice the natural surroundings can include mindfulness practices that use the senses to focus on the here and now. These are known techniques for reducing feelings of stress and boosting feelings of self-compassion and empathy instead which, in turn, can help us cope better with stress and engage more positively at work.
- Connection: An outdoor break provides the chance to interact with work colleagues away from the desk in a more informal setting. Whether at work or at home, positive interactions and strong work relationships are key for our mental wellbeing.
- Creativity: It is well known that spending time in nature inspires creativity, which can manifest through outlets such as painting, music or writing. Simply having the mental headspace to develop fresh ideas and innovative solutions can be hugely beneficial. At the same time, spending less time on computers, smartphones and other electronic gadgets, facilitates greater problem-solving abilities.
- Productivity: The brain has a capacity for focused attention for about 90 minutes at a time, after which concentration naturally wanes. By taking a much-deserved rest from having to be mentally alert and doing something that doesn’t require your full concentration makes it easier to recharge the little grey cells.
Ideally, connecting with nature during a break from work or at any time should involve an element of physical activity, such as going for a lunchtime walk. But even if your team members only walk as far as the park bench and enjoy a packed lunch al fresco rather than al desko, there are clear benefits to be derived. Even sitting near an open window overlooking the park is better than nothing.
How long should you spend in nature?
According to research, the minimum amount of time we need to be exposed to nature in order to notice a positive impact on our mental state of health is two hours per week, which works out at less than half an hour per day. Three to five hours per week are optimum which is as little as one hour per working day.
Once the habit is embedded, it is surprising how quickly awareness can change. Suddenly, people will become aware of elements of nature all around them that would previously have gone unnoticed. From plants in the office to hanging baskets in the street, local parks and communal gardens, you might soon develop a positive affinity with the natural world and look forward to that daily walk.