Nature and mental health: lessons from the pandemic

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According to the Office for National Statistics, more than two-thirds of adults in the UK reported feeling more anxious at the start of the pandemic in the face of illness, lockdowns, and self-isolation – being able to see and hug our loved ones is a basic need for our mental health and it was suddenly taken away. More severe mental health issues rose in some groups, notably amongst young people and women.

Even now that the last of the restrictions have been lifted, the impact of all of this on our mental health has continued to be huge, especially for those with pre-existing mental health issues or for those who lost a loved one or employment as a direct result of the pandemic.

In all the uncertainty and restrictions, one thing that many people turned to for solace was the outdoors.

Wellington boots, plant boxes and a silver-coloured vessel on wood chippings

Our collective appreciation for local parks and green spaces rose, and there is a lot of evidence that the natural environment helped us to cope better with our mental health. More than 40% of people surveyed by Natural England remarked that nature, wildlife, and visiting natural spaces became more important to their wellbeing since the start of the pandemic.

Of course the fact that for a long time we could only see others in outdoor spaces provided extra incentive to make use of them and subsequently feel the extra benefits from doing so.

Health benefits of nature walks

As well as the beauty of nature and the outdoors, there are many health benefits. Walking improves our physical health and fitness, fresh air helps to oxygenate and improve our lungs and even our immune systems can be supported by plants and trees when they give out phytoncides into the air, which are compounds that improve immune system function.

Group mask-wearing people including a child walking through trees

Sunlight is also a big reason why being outside is so beneficial and what many people cited as helping them through the very first UK lockdown. When the clocks go forward in Spring and the days lengthen with the season, we get one hour more of sunshine into our days. Sunlight helps our immune systems, energising our T cells and giving us vitamin D and serotonin, which are both classed as ‘happy’ hormones.

Our circadian rhythms also benefit from sunlight exposure giving us a better night’s sleep, which we can all appreciate!

How to connect with nature

When you’re out in nature in a local park, garden or allotment, try connecting with it. Just notice what is growing around you… the bees, the hundreds of flowers blossoming, the smell of flora and foliage, the sound of rustling leaves or birds singing. This is ‘mindfulness’ – being present in nature only increases its benefits.

If you’re feeling adventurous, try a new park, lake or nature reserve. If you have more time to spare you can even try a spot of volunteering in nature, which can be extremely rewarding – see more information on how you can get started with TCV here.

Two older ladies laughing while sat on a bench in woodland

Access to nature in urban areas

Of course not everyone has access or the time to spend in a green space or garden, so those more likely to be able to maintain these changes are usually those with higher incomes. If nature is to be made more accessible for everyone, the government and local communities must invest in and create ways of encouraging and increasing quality green space amidst our urban landscapes.

There are positive steps towards this. In London for example The London Environment strategy aims to ensure that more than half of London will be green by 2050 and that trees will increase by 10%. In dense urban areas there is also an emphasis on greening buildings, such as creating green roofs and walls by covering them in vegetation.

Two men using loppers on vegetation in a green space with high rise flats in the background

If you find your access to outdoor green space is limited, even having a house plant can bring positive effects to the air in your home and increase your wellbeing.

The virtual world can be at odds with nature but the virtual nature walks that popped up during lockdowns and many other nature videos and documentaries can also help to calm our minds and bring us joy.

After the pandemic

Hopefully we can all keep up our appreciation of nature and enjoy the benefits nature has on our wellbeing for a long time to come. Our brains and bodies will thank us!

And of course let’s not forget the planet itself. The pandemic highlighted more than ever how our lives are dependent on the natural world. Connecting with the environment not only helps our wellbeing but also develops more pro-environmental behaviours in us, which will help us to better address and care about future environmental challenges.

So here is to a lifelong relationship with nature!

Red cup with TCV logo sat in grass

Keep up to date with the latest news and activities from The Conservation Volunteers by following on TwitterFacebookLinkedIn and Instagram. You can also sign up to receive our Greenzine newsletter for more ways to get involved – including more ideas for increasing biodiversity and UK plant guides.

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