Feeling blue with the pandemic? A dose of nature can make a big difference

The pandemic has left us all to deal with unprecedented changes in our day-to-day lives, including making many people spending most of their time at home, isolated from others. While this can be effective in reducing the spread of the virus, it can also have negative consequences on our mental health and wellbeing.

But we have a pandemic-proof ally: nature. During this extraordinary time nature around our homes can actually play a key role in mitigating against the risk of adverse mental health outcomes, studies are increasingly showing.

Credit image: Flickr / Luis Alberto Martinez

“Studies have proven that even the smallest bit of nature can generate health benefits,” Kathleen Wolf, a researcher at the University of Washington, said in a statement. “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.”

With more people working from home, many have been inspired to explore nature in their neighborhood as they refocus on their immediate surroundings. Factory and car emissions have declined due to the pandemic so taking a walk to a near-by park and listening to the birds can even be more enjoyable than before.

Even if you can’t go out due to the pandemic you can still receive mental health benefits from nature from within your home. One notable “less immediate” experience of nature is viewing nature from the home (through the balcony or even the window) — we all do this more or less and it helps a bit, even though we might not feel it.

People all around the world have also seen a greater interest in gardening. Google Trends shows a doubling of worldwide online searches for compost and seeds compared with a year ago. U.S. seed company W. Atlee Burpee & Co sold more seed than any time in its 144-year history in March, for example.

Dr Mathew White, from the University of Exeter, told the BBC that even a brief nature fix such as ten minutes of wind brushing across our cheek, or the sun on our skin can lower stress. Connecting with nature makes us happier and more energized, with an increased sense of meaning and purpose, he added.

In fact, many studies have shown exactly that. Researchers from the University of Tokyo did an online questionnaire to 3,000 adults in Japan to quantify the link between menthol health outcomes and measures of nature experiences. They found a link between more frequent green space use with higher levels of happiness.

“Our results suggest that nearby nature can serve as a buffer in decreasing the adverse impacts of a very stressful event on humans,” said lead author Masashi Soga. “Protecting natural environments in urban areas is important not only for the conservation of biodiversity but also for the protection of human health.”

A study from last year found that spending time with nature produced a significant drop in the stress hormone cortisol, with the duration of the nature experience contributing to the amount of stress reduction. Another research from 2004 showed having access to a garden has a significant positive impact on stress.

Peter Kahn from Washington University explained that being in touch with nature can slow down the mind’s natural process of rumination through which we think about the past and worry about the future. “When your mind isn’t ruminating, it can then open to a wider world, where there’s great beauty and healing,” he said in a statement.

Slow movements such clouds moving across the sky place effortless demands on our working memory but enough to distract us from rumination. Researchers such as Kahn call this capacity to hold our attention the “soft fascination” of nature. A similar effect is caused by tending to plants, giving us a sense of achievement when they flourish.

Other tips that you can do at home include:

  • Open a window to hear the sounds of the leaves or enjoy the scent of fresh rain
  • Walk first in the morning or before the sunset when the warm colors highlight the textures of the natural world
  • Plant seeds. You can even use the ones you find in fruits or near trees
  • Use natural design elements in your home
  • Think of nature when you are cooking. When you take your morning coffee, imagine the rainforest birds that helped pollinate coffee plants.

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