Get outdoors for physical and mental wellbeing

03 Jun 2020

A blog by Juliet Caldwell, Species Champion Coordinator at Scottish Environment LINK. 

The last few weeks have seen an unprecedented and disruptive change to our daily lives in a bid to keep us safe. In a time of uncertainty, what is certain is that the current situation and the advice regarding social distancing and self-isolation will have a massive impact on our mental health and overall sense of wellbeing.

The human-nature relationship is an important one. Studies across the world are clarifying what many instinctively know; that we often feel restored when we spend time in nature. Over the past few years mounting research has shown that interactions with nature lowers blood pressure and decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which calms the body’s fight or flight response. Most research has focused on the visual aspects of nature experiences. However, humans are multi-sensory and benefits are delivered through non-visual senses such as sound, smell, taste and touch. Watching birds and listening to bird song can help filter away stress.

Globally, people are shifting their relationship to the natural environment at a time when access to shared outdoor space has rarely been so difficult. The COVID-19 pandemic may be a chance to shift perceptions of what “nature” really means and finding new hyper-local ways to appreciate it. At a time when the mental health effects of mass isolation and anxiety over a rising death toll are still unmeasured and unknown, experts have highlighted the importance of getting up close with nature in whatever way possible. Vitamin D from the sunshine boosts immune systems and bone health. Immersion in greenery has been linked to reduction of stress, healthier heart rates and blood pressure.

However, the current lockdown is proving challenging for millions of people across the country who do not have access to greenspace. Access to greenspaces has become a luxury, despite access to them being fundamental to our ability to stay healthy. Public parks have closed their gates and neighbourhoods are losing vital access to green space. While strict isolation rules have been implemented to keep us safe, not having access to nature in an outdoor space has dangerous knock-on effects on physical and mental health for many. However, an increased quantity and quality of green space won’t just benefit us – it’ll help conserve biodiversity and reverse nature’s decline so that wildlife can thrive, not just survive.

Our opportunities to engage with nature may be fewer during the pandemic but there are numerous ways to stay connected to the natural world and look after your wellbeing. Noticing nature through a window, tending plants or taking green exercise all can improve your well-being and self-esteem. We are currently watching spring unfold, a symbol of renewal and regeneration. Humans are inherently social, and the prospect of forced isolation has led many of us to reconnect with nature. Nature will nurture us. However, the relationship will only survive and remain balanced if it is reciprocated.

There’s nothing good about the coronavirus pandemic. Since we’re fated to go through this passage, we may as well learn something from it. There are a few insights to learn. The COVID-19 crisis has seen humans act with unprecedented solidarity. It is abundantly clear now that prevention is better than cure. The pandemic has revealed some truths: that disasters do not respect borders; that solidarity brings strength; that science and expert advice matter; and that delay is deadly. The same lessons hold true for today’s nature crisis, where nature, in Scotland and across the world is diminishing in terms of species diversity and habitat occupation. While the pandemic was sudden and will be temporal, the impacts of nature loss is incremental, but also severe and persistent. Without support and investment, nature cannot continue to provide the wellbeing and livelihoods we depend on.

People around the world are realising the importance of nature for our wellbeing. The world has come to a standstill and we’ve never had so much free time. People are turning to gardening and small-scale agricultural activities. We have time to reflect upon our relationship with nature. People of all ages are craving open spaces; realising the wellbeing and health benefits of being in nature. We need nature more than ever, as a solution, as a resource, for respite and for our mental health and wellbeing. Appreciating nature and having access to it has never been so important.

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