We all feel stress at some point in our lives due to the pressures of a society in constant flux and living in an environment that has become more urban and less natural.  High stress levels make us prone to develop future physical and mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue, and metabolic and immune disorders.  Therefore, it is paramount to reduce our stress in order to maintain good health and wellbeing.
According to several studies, spending time in Nature can provide real health benefits such as lower blood pressure, reduced nervous system arousal, an enhanced immune system and sharpened cognition. It can also reduce anxiety, boost your confidence, improve your mood, and give you feelings of happiness and a sense of meaning in life.

A Cornell University study has shown that connecting with Nature for 20 minutes every day can help reduce stress levels. The researchers asked 36 people to spend a minimum of 20 minutes walking or sitting on a bench in an outdoor space for 3 days a week for 8 weeks. The green spaces would range from simple yards to public parks or even bigger areas. The levels of the stress hormone Cortisol were measured both before and after the nature connections and the cohort of participants were advised not to engage in physical or mental activity before and after to avoid being overstimulated.  The results showed that spending between 20 to 30 minutes fully engaged in Nature without other stimuli contributed to a significant reduction in Cortisol.

Photos by Amelia Nunes

A 2022 landmark study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development discovered that a 60-minute walk in Nature decreases activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for stress processing. This was a crucial finding as it demonstrates the causal relationship between exposure to nature and change in stress-related brain regions. Those responsible for this study claim that a walk in Nature could help to prevent or alleviate mental health problems and act as a protective factor against the negative impact stress has on us.
In Denmark researchers studied data on more than 900,000 residents born between 1985 and 2003. They found that children who lived in areas with more green spaces were less likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders and substance abuse disorders later in life, while those who lived in areas with fewer green areas would have a 55% risk increase.
Most research so far has focused on green spaces such as parks and forests, but researchers are now also beginning to study the benefits of blue spaces, places with river and ocean views. Matthew White and Colleagues from the University of Exeter have found that these spaces may be even slightly more restorative than green spaces.

Researchers have also found that remote rural and coastal locations with a mix of fauna and flora such as nature reserves and protected habitats have a particular impact due to the sense of awe they induce and their high environmental quality.  In a survey of 4,515 UK residents it was revealed that people felt highly connected to nature and more reinvigorated after visiting these rural and coastal locations than when they visited urban green areas.

Feeling that sense of connection to nature is what truly benefits our mood and mental health, not simply the amount of time spent in nature. Researcher Allison Pritchard of the University of Derby speaks of a type of contentment that goes beyond feeling good and is more a sense of finding purpose in life.  

Researchers have proposed two main theories to help understand the findings of the studies about nature’s therapeutic powers: 
The Stress Reduction Hypothesis and the Attention Restoration Theory. The former postulates that spending time in nature contributes to the reduction of stress levels whilst the latter argues that nature recharges our cognitive resources and replenishes our ability to concentrate and pay effective attention.

Photos by Amelia Nunes

Ways to reduce your stress and improve your wellbeing by connecting with Nature through the Five Ways to Wellbeing
Connect - Connecting helps us feel close to others and valued by who we are.         
  • Join an outdoors community group
  • Invite a neighbour, a friend or a colleague to join you on a walk
  • Join a walking group with like-minded individuals 
  • Invite family and friends to a picnic 
Be Active - Physical activity is essential for a positive mental attitude and to maintain sleep quality, which in return will help you to feel happier.               
  • Go for a short walk at lunch time
  • Go for a walk at the local park at the weekend
  • Take the stairs instead of the lift
  • Walk into work if possible
  • Join a local wild swimming group 
Keep Learning - Learning stimulates your brain and also gives you the feeling that you are developing, which boosts your self-esteem. 
  • Learn the history of a local park or forest
  • Research the benefits of connecting with Nature
  • Read a book about Nature
  • Join a foraging group           
  • Join a nature lovers’ group and learn about birds, flowers and the trees.
Take Notice - Noticing will keep your curiosity alive and help you to notice yourself and your environment.
  • Join a mindful photography group
  • Attend a Forest Bathing session
  • Attend a Yoga class outdoors 
  • Enrol in a Nature Connect workshop 
  • Attend a Mindfulness class

Give - Giving to and helping others is a source of joy and happiness.
  • Help an elderly neighbour by tidying their garden
  • Organise a walking group
  • If you have a garden, choose plants that benefit wildlife
  • Share your homegrown veggies with a neighbour 
  • Water a tree on your street when the weather is dry
  • ​Join a conservation project.
If you are unable to get out due to a health condition, you can still benefit from connecting with nature as research reveals that just looking at images or watching videos of nature can lower stress levels.  White and colleagues from the University of Exeter concluded that virtual reality nature experiences, although less effective, can still be beneficial for individuals who cannot spend time outdoors due to mobility difficulties or ill health.  This is why modern hospitals often have pictures of nature to accelerate patients’ recovery.  

The evidence is clear: connecting with nature is not just a luxury but a vital component of mental wellbeing. So, the next time you feel overwhelmed by stress or anxiety, consider stepping outside and immersing yourself in the beauty of the world around you. In doing so, you may find solace, clarity, and a renewed sense of calm that can help you navigate life's challenges with greater resilience and ease.
Remember, nature is always there, ready to welcome and nurture you with open arms and offer its gentle embrace. Embrace its healing presence, and may you find peace amidst the tranquillity of Mother Nature.

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