We all accept that we need to rest our bodies, but what about our minds? When we are at work, we use ‘directed attention’ to focus our efforts and ignore distractions so we can solve problems and complete tasks. Modern life, however, often calls on this resource more than we can easily access it.
Attending to the stimuli in peaceful, natural environments – surrounded by trees, by rivers, by the sea – is a different experience, using our involuntary attention. It doesn’t require prolonged effort or an act of will to avoid distractions. Our brains can disengage and restore their capacity for directed attention, reducing mental fatigue and stress.
Today is World Mental Health Day and the incidence of mental ill health is on the rise in the UK. With an estimated one in four people experiencing a 'significant’ mental health problem in any one year, it makes sense for us to consider what can help us maintain good mental health.
Spending time in the countryside has many benefits on us physically from the fresh air in our lungs, the space to exercise and the pleasure from stunning views. But if we delve a little deeper we can look at the effects it can have on our mental health, too. Until recently, the scientific evidence to back up anecdotal theories that nature is good for your mental health was scarce, but now that’s changing. A recent report from Natural England shows that taking part in nature-based activities helps people who are suffering from mental health problems and can contribute to reducing levels of anxiety, stress and depression.
Nature-based interventions (also called green care and ecotherapy) could be part of a new approach to mental health care. Responses to nature can include feelings of pleasure and can have a reduction in anxiety. Not only can getting outside be used in treatment but access to nature helps to maintain good mental health. The University of Exeter Medical School recently analysed mental health data from 10,000 people, and found that those living near more green space reported less mental distress, even after adjusting for income, education, and employment (all of which are also correlated with health). A daily walk, with or without the dog, in the countryside builds up aerobic and cardiovascular fitness, and releases serotonin, the feel-good chemical in the brain. These types of self-guided therapeutic activities can help improve mood, enhance motivation and promote self-worth and resilience in children and adults alike.
While open spaces are protected for leisure and ecological reasons, their value for our wellbeing isn't recognised by law. Many environmental organisations, including CPRE, have urged the Government to consider a Nature and Wellbeing Act, which would enshrine in law the need for green spaces to improve our mental wellbeing. Considering the social and economic benefits to society of a population with good mental health, the sooner the importance of access to the countryside is recognised, the better for all of us.