Does ‘Tree Hugging’ really help Mental Wellbeing?
Updated: Sep 28
As Adam & Eve learned the hard way, when something’s forbidden, you crave it like never before. So when a daily walk lasting just one hour was ‘prescribed’ by the UK government during the COVID-19 pandemic, we embraced our own little Edens wherever and however we could get them. Urban dwellers flocked to local parks, which were suddenly ‘havens’ of blooms, boughs and birdsong. Even the smallest garden or balcony provided the chance to see clouds, sky, breeding birds and bees busying themselves. for Nature, it was ‘business as usual’. For most of us, nature was our salvation. Simply put, it was reminding us that, that whatever happens, ‘Life’ goes on.
Today, some big names including the actor, Sir Mark Rylance, went on air calling for greater investment in the Green Economy as a solution to climate change – as well as the economic crisis: With hundreds of thousands of actors out of work due to the pandemic, those who could, should offer a spare hand and give over one month a year to help green the UK.
Even without Covid-19, post Brexit Britain was going to see new Environment and Agriculture Bills place greater emphasis on the value on wildlife rather than just on the value of food production. Many hope this pandemic will also motivate town planners to enhance green spaces in urban environments, where, arguably, they are needed most. Afterall, 55% of the world’s population live in urban areas according to the WHO (2010 figures). Certainly, initiatives such as leaving stretches of verge un-mown in parks and on roadsides can promote health and wellbeing – as well as boosting biodiversity. As we humans have come to realise like never before that ‘Our health is our wealth’, we must also realise that, for Mother Earth, it’s species-riches that count. Let’s examine some evidence…
OUR HEALTH IS OUR WEALTH…
A qualitative study by Taylor, Hahs and Hochuli (2018) looked at the mental wellbeing of people in urban areas of Australia. Two biodiversity indicators were used: one looked at the species of birds, the other looked at the richness of vegetation in the area. The study concluded that individuals’ wellbeing was affected by their perceived exposure to nature. The researchers had found that wellbeing could be improved by increasing access to nature in urban areas. So, dear council leaders and town planners: now is the time to make this happen. This was echoed by The Guardian: ‘Coronavirus is a warning to mend our broken relationship with nature’ .
PET SOUNDS (and other PERKS)
But it’s not just seeing nature that we find relaxing. Sound is equally important. Researchers at the University of Surrey found evidence suggesting that listening to birdsongs alleviates feelings of stress or cognitive fatigue. Birdsong is perceived to be restorative as the songs symbolise outdoor space. Furthermore, an increased biodiversity of birds in an area is linked to increased wellbeing and reduced levels of stress. For certain, birdsong has seemed louder than usual during lockdown – an unexpected perk to hear chirps, especially during nesting season, thanks to the absence of aviation and vehicular noise. Scientists also know that birds sing louder to compensate for the sound of aeroplanes.
Why not see if you can recognise these common back garden birds?
WHY IS NATURE SO RESTORATIVE AND REASSURING?
Several theories have been put forward to explain the link between nature and mental wellbeing. The biophilia hypothesis suggests that our human ancestors evolved to survive by becoming extremely connected to nature in order to find food and water, and survive in different climates (Capaldi, Passmore, Nisbet, Zelenski, & Dopko, 2015). From an evolutionary perspective, is only relatively recently that humans have lived in urban environments, yet, this innate need to stay connected has endured. Whilst scientists tell us we are gradually losing our sense of smell, this would explain why hearing birdsong has a positive effect on people: it evokes an innate sense of being close to nature, and induces positive feelings.
Another theory known as stress reduction theory hypothesises that non-threatening natural environments lower stress in humans. Urban environments are often busy, highly populated and have high levels of pollution – all of which can contribute to stress. In our busy, fast-paced lives filled with social media, work and everyday stressors, no wonder we feel ‘on edge’ in an environment that’s so far removed from that of our ancestors.
HOW TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THIS KNOWLEDGE
Many of us live in busy cities, and whilst we may long for countryside living, often this just is not possible. Yet, there are ways that we can incorporate nature into our everyday lives. Interestingly, it has been found that experiencing nature through technology such as photos or videos has been found to increase wellbeing (Velarde, Fry & Tveit, 2007). In a study conducted in a school in Australia, children who engaged in ‘hands-on’ nature-based activities, such as scavenger hunts and observing insects, benefitted from positive outcomes overall. (Maller & Townsend, 2006). This means that don’t necessarily have to ‘leave behind’ our urban dwelling. We can create our own ‘biophilic’ way of living by integrating nature into our lives. This way of living increases wellbeing, and even decreases aggression in men (Gillis & Gatersleben, 2015). We just need to take the time to ‘switch off’ from our hectic lives, and ‘switch on’ to ways of connecting with nature – whether this be through a walk in the park with the dog, or decorating the office with an array of plants.
In fact, not only can nature improve our wellbeing, but, in some cases, it has been used as a mental health intervention to increase patient wellbeing. The Canadian Mental Health Association’s Mood Walks initiative uses nature interventions to help connect people with nature again to reduce their anxiety and increase their mental wellbeing.
Nature may not be able to ‘cure’ mental illness or physical ailments, but research has suggested that it can improve wellbeing and mood at a relatively low cost. The Telegraph newspaper recently published an article outlining the work of a 43-year-old horticulturalist and former nurse, Faith Douglas, in North Yorkshire. Faith runs a nature retreat where she and uses horticultural therapy to help adults with learning disabilities. She also runs digital detox retreats, explaining that many office-based people such as journalists feel the need for ‘permission to switch off’ from technology to tune into the natural world. She notes, “Without the natural world, you’re not going to get maximum health. Fact.”
So, what about those of us who cannot go on a retreat? She replies, “You don’t have to be in a woodland. If the best thing you can do is look out of your office window at a blue sky with clouds, or a tree in a car park at work, you’re doing something.”
Faith adds that she is glad that people are taking this time during the current pandemic lockdown to explore the natural world around them, finding places that they may not have known were there. Many of us have had a break from our daily commutes on public transport or being stuck within four office walls. This has allowed us to reconnect with nature and let go of some of our social media ties. If you are looking for permission to take a break and connect with nature, then this is it! And if seeing images of birds and nature can help our mental anguish, there can’t be a better image than this one by wildlife photographer, Tom Streeter, who has captured the thrill of life through these stunning kingfishers.
Thank you to Julia Stammers, Psychology Graduate, who completed 2 weeks’ work experience at Curious PR and wrote this brilliantly researched first blog.