How getting in touch with nature helps your wellbeing and mental health

Butterfly Walk at Heartwood Forest

Butterfly Walk at Heartwood Forest - Credit: #SustFest

Most people would recognise the huge benefits from getting out into green spaces over the past year, especially during the peak lockdowns, but surprisingly few of us have actually taken part in any nature activities.

New data from the People & Nature Survey for England has revealed that while 90 per cent of adults agree that natural spaces improve mental health, only 8 per cent have participated in organised wildlife activities since coronavirus restrictions began.

Compared to a pre-pandemic baseline, visits to parks during July and August 2020 increased by 92 per cent in St Albans, and now experts are encouraging people to find other opportunities to get in touch with the natural world all around them.

Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust people and wildlife officer Dave Willis said: “We can all think of natural moments which relax and inspire us. For many people, the months of lockdown have led to a realisation that the natural world makes us feel better.

"Evidence has shown that brain wave patterns, blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol can all reduce when we interact with nature. Spending time with nature is so powerful that simply looking at images of plants and animals can achieve the same result."

Martin Maylin - Hornbeam Wood Hedgehog Sanctuary

Martin Maylin - Hornbeam Wood Hedgehog Sanctuary - Credit: Hornbeam Wood Hedgehog Sanctuary

Martin Maylin, director of the Hornbeam Wood Hedgehog Sanctuary in Harpenden, said: "I think people in general feel very different both mentally and emotionally when they are outside close to nature and in places of natural beauty.

"We are very fortunate in this country to have so many open rural accessible locations where people can go to relax and spend time enjoying the peace and quite that our countryside offers. 

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"Attracting wildlife into the garden is something that would bring you closer to nature, as most gardens are an extension to your living space.  

"There are also many community run organisations that look to help improve local areas through nature and conservation projects, such as the Wheathampstead and District Preservation Society.

"Community allotments are also really good places to be outside and at the same time rewarding your efforts. I know that the East Harpenden Gardening Club will soon have four new mini plots available to rent at Holcroft South Allotments! But, I'm sure there are also many other local community allotments near you."

Nicola Richter - St Albans psychologist

Nicola Richter - St Albans psychologist - Credit: Nicola Richter

Nicola Richter, a St Albans-based psychologist and senior accredited psychotherapist said: “As a psychologist of over 25 years I have observed and know from research the immense benefits nature gives us.

"Being in nature improves our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being. Walking in the woods or a park provides some light exercise. It gives us much more oxygen than sitting at the desk or in front of the TV. It can serve as a distraction and opportunity to re-focus, making it easier to experience our humanness, our interconnectedness with everything and everyone.

"It helps us to move away from the traps of modern life, where comparing ourselves with others creates suffering. When we smell the beautiful scent of a rose or experience the cooling shade of an oak tree on a hot summer's day, we don’t judge. 

The Alban Way.

The Alban Way. - Credit: Matt Adams

"Too often do we judge others and ourselves: for example, they are more beautiful, they are smarter, they are too different. This happens at work, in our relationships or responses to challenging situations such as Covid. We don’t judge who is better or worse in nature. As a society we need to train this ‘muscle’ of appreciating and accepting differences, being in nature nurtures our body, heart, mind and soul.”

St Albans chartered clinical psychologist Dr Jonathan Hutchins said: “Attending to our mental wellbeing is an important daily need. Many of us focus on our physical health however we know that our health is better improved when focussing on both physical and mental wellbeing, luckily for us we can do both at the same time.

"Connecting with nature is a wonderful way of paying attention to our five senses and to help us to ‘ground’ in the present. This in turn can help us to reset, to reduce anxiety and also releases hormones which can alleviate distress even for a short time - essentially giving us some respite. 

"The last year has been difficult for many people. Some of our clients have noticed that taking photos or drawing wildlife has helped them reduce their stress levels; others have gone for walks or sat in one location noticing, connecting and absorbing their natural outdoor space.

"Allocate some time in your day to connect with nature - the benefits can be life-changing.”

Rothamsted Park in the autumn.

Rothamsted Park in the autumn. - Credit: Steve Collins

Wildlife expert Sean McMenemy, director of Herts-based Ark Wildlife, added: "Slowing to the pace of nature and its natural rhythms is greatly beneficial and contrasts starkly with our fast paced digital existences with all its distractions. Time spent in nature is never wasted.

"An activity like birdwatching could even inspire a new found interest in wildlife. Whether this entails stepping outside to watch the birds, or observing them through a window, the act of appreciating surrounding wildlife is both a learning opportunity and a chance to have fun, and step away from your usual daily tasks.”