It can help improve mental health and wellbeing and reduce anxiety.
Even modest reminders of nature can help boost mental health during lockdown, research finds.
Nature can be experienced on a walk close to home, in the back yard or even indoors.
All have been shown to improve mental health and wellbeing and reduce anxiety.
Experiencing nature mindfully can help increase its effect, as can sharing memories of nature, thinking back to natural places that induce calm and sharing these stories with others.
Nature can help stop rumination — thinking about the causes and consequences of depressing events — a process common in depression.
Dr Kathleen Wolf, an expert on the health benefits of nature, said:
“Studies have proven that even the smallest bit of nature—a single tree, a small patch of flowers, a house plant—can generate health benefits.
Look closely in your neighborhood, and the bit of nature you may have taken for granted up until now may become the focus of your attention and help you feel better.”
Over the years, thousands of studies have shown the positive effect of nature on mental health.
As little as 20-minutes of nature can help to reduce stress, one study has found.
Gardens and backyards provide some with access to grass, bird song, leaves and flowers.
For those stuck indoors, though, potted plants or even photos or videos of nature can provide the necessary reminder.
Being mindful is key to getting the most out of nature, said Dr Wolf:
“It’s important to be mindful, commit to the activity and think about your observations while looking at these materials or elements of nature.
That means not merely scrolling through on your computer, but looking at photos or video streams with more intention.
It’s essentially nature-oriented meditation.”
Sharing experiences of nature with others is also powerful, said Dr Wolf:
“Even though we are physically distancing, it’s really important to our health to maintain our social connections.
There is evidence that people who are lonely or who are socially isolated can be prone to poorer health.
Nature might be a means, either by being outside a safe distance from others or by sharing stories with each other, of staying socially connected.”
Exposure to nature helps to stop people ruminating, a process of continuously worrying about the past and the future linked to mental health problems.
Professor Peter Kahn, an expert on environmental sciences, explained:
“In these times, I think our minds can be a little out of control.
Part of the effect of nature is that it can soften negative conditioned mental patterns.
If you can find nature, engage with it and get your heart rate down, then your mind begins to settle.
When your mind isn’t ruminating, it can then open to a wider world, where there’s great beauty and healing.”
The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology (Hunter et al., 2019).
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog.
He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
Why You’re Having Anxiety Over Lockdown Ending,
And How To Cope
“Many of my clients, most of whom have never previously experienced anxiety about going out, are nervous as states begin to reopen and loosen restrictions,” said Jennifer Chappell Marsh, a marriage and family therapist in San Diego, which is in the process of moving from stage 2 of reopening to stage 3.
“They’ve spent months without much exposure to people and places while consuming a lot of coronavirus-related media,” she said. “But there are so many unknowns: We don’t know how bad this will get and we don’t know how long this will last. They don’t know what to expect and the unknown can be terrifying, especially because the risk of infection is real, can lead to death and there is no vaccine.”
Recognize that it’s entirely natural to feel anxiety about this.
“We were used to [it], but during the last few months, most of us have only had real, face-to-face interactions with a small subset of people,” she said. “It’s going to take some adjustment to go back to ‘real life.’ At the very least, we might experience sensory overload, since our brains are no longer used to processing so many social interactions.”
“I was walking in the park here in NYC and all of a sudden I was feeling very foggy and confused,” she said. “I then realized it was because my brain had a hard time adjusting to seeing that many people outside!”
“My brain was just having a hard time adjusting,” she said. “Much like when we are outside on a very bright day and our eyes have a hard time adjusting to the change in light when we go inside.”
Ask yourself: What can I control now?
“In times of uncertainty and overwhelm, it’s best to bring our focus to the here and now, asking ourselves, ‘What can I do?’ said Chappell Marsh. “Shifting our mindset in that way takes us mentally from overwhelm and anxious to empowered and hopeful.”
You don’t have to rush back out there, but try to take baby steps to get comfortable with being in public again.
“Stay in touch with your feelings, continuously check in with yourself, and respect where you are, given what you’ve just experienced,” Yacoob said. “That doesn’t mean you need to let your feelings completely dictate your actions if you know rationally that they are not serving you well. As in, just because you feel something is true does not mean that it is.” (In other words, sometimes our feelings can convince us of that we’re more at risk than we are when, say, we go to the market with a mask.)
Take baby steps. Start by asking yourself, “What is a small risk I can tolerate today?” the therapist said.
“Then identify one thing that you can do that feels uncomfortable,” she explained. “Keep washing your hands, wearing your mask and maintain good distance when in public while also pushing yourself to take one small step outside your comfort zone. Once there, allow yourself to stay in the discomfort and breathe through it until the discomfort dissipates.”
When you start to worry, try this simple thought exercise.
“What’s triggering it?” she said. “What are the specific worries you’re having?”
- What is the evidence for and against the worrisome thought?
- What’s the usefulness of having this thought? (Is it adding more tension than helping you solve problems?)
- What would you tell a friend or loved one in a similar situation?
- Can you set aside time to worry later?
- Can you breathe through the worry and practice mindfulness?
“Are there specific things that they make you avoid? If so, write these down and every day, try to push yourself to do those things you’re scared of,” she explained. “This is a technique called exposure and we use it in cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders.”
“Counseling to help improve mental health in response to this experience can be helpful,” Chicago therapist Anna Poss told HuffPost. “As a society, we haven’t done a great job of normalizing counseling, but it is a great way to get support and does not mean anything is ‘wrong’ with you. It just means that something is hard and you don’t have to go through it alone. That’s certainly the case with a pandemic.”
Keep the focus on you and your self-care, not on others and how they’re approaching things reopening.
“We have no insight into what those around us may be experiencing, so as best you can, lighten up on judgment and harsh words towards others,” she said. “It’s healthier to focus on you right now.”
By Brittany Wong 06/09/2020