From ancient Greece, Rome and China to the present, the belief in natures ability to restore and cure has been persistent. Borne from this belief are the foundations behind passions for gardening, bird-watching, hiking, and even in the philosophy of Romanticism (Bate, 2005). As towns and cities become more urbanised and less green, numerous studies and growing evidence suggests that experiencing nature is beneficial for mental health as a form of therapy.
Pearson and Craig (2014) discuss an influential framework presented by Kaplan and Kaplan (1989) termed attentional restoration theory (ART). ART claims that those spending excessive amounts of time in an urban environment, can suffer from cognitive fatigue. In other words, living in an urban environment forces one to focus their attention to overcome constant stimulation. In comparison with the natural environment, the demand on executive-based attention is reduced, therefore allowing greater restoration of depleted attentional resources, used when in urban environments. Basically, when experiencing nature, ones mind is able to relax and return to default.
Another interesting finding was the experience of ‘being away’ when with nature (Pearson and Craig, 2014). Similar to the term ‘being in the moment’, being away refers to the feeling of escapism, the process of removing oneself from the stresses of everyday life. Pearson and Craig explain that studies reporting the effects of ‘being away’ with nature, find that ones attention to demanding tasks improves following exposure to natural environments.
In a study by Korpela et al. (2001), students were asked to describe their favourite places. The results were heavily biased toward natural environments, for example – cottages surrounded by trees and a lake, beaches, woods etc. Although the study does not explicitly link nature the mental health of the individual, it implies that for many, nature is a prime source their happiness.
Studies aside, the natural benefits are being practised worldwide, and in the western world, is known as ‘ecotherapy’. Ecotherapy can involve anything outdoors, such as working in nature, be it a conservation project, gardening or farming. It also involves experiencing nature, such as enjoying the views on a walk or cycling through some woodland.
A blog written in 2013 details the journey of a man named Michael. After a serious head injury, he suffered severe depression and panic attacks, and as a result, got involved with an organisation called ‘Growing Well’. The organisation practices ecotherapy, which supports people from periods of mental illness by providing a supportive environment on an organic farm. Over time, this environment enabled Michael to regain his sense of worth and self-confidence in the outdoors.
Others with similar experiences to Michael go on to explain how ecotherapy has helped them:
“It gives me structure, makes me utilise the daylight and get out of bed. It gives me something outside of myself to nurture and look after and that helps me to better look after myself.”
“I do ecotherapy to get sunlight onto my skin and into my mind. It shines light through the dark fog of depression.”
As we race ever forward to an increasingly technological era, the simple wonder of experiencing the outdoors is becoming less common. We as a species are moving indoors, sticking our feet up and turning on the television, ironically watching David Attenbourgh documentaries about the wonders of nature. Over the past two decades, it has been reported that children are spending less than 30 minutes a day outdoors each day, and more than seven hours in front of an electronic screen (Sandberg, 1999).
Whether you are suffering from a mental illness or not, its important to realise the multiple benefits you can experience just outside your door. I hope this leaves you considering going on an adventure this weekend, and receiving a little therapy as you do so.
Benedict George Murray, Visitor Centre Assistant
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Bate, J., 2005, Falling in love again, Book Review: Depression cut the naturalist Richard Mabey off from the natural world. He charts his slow process of recovery in Nature Cure
Hofferth, S., and Sandberg, J., 1999, “Changes in American Children’s Time, 1981-1997,” University of Michigan
Institute for Social Research. http://www.puttingfamilyfirst.org/research.php
Kaplan, R., and Kaplan, S., 1989. The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Korpela, K. M., Hartig, T., Kaiser, F. G., and Fuhrer, U., 2001, Restorative experience and self-regulation in favorite places
Pearson, D.G., and Craig, T., 2014, The great outdoors? Exploring the mental health benefits of natural environments, Available online at: http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01178/full
Putting ecotherapy into the picture,
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From ancient Greece, Rome and China to the present, the belief in natures ability to restore and cure has been persistent. Borne from this belief are the foundations behind passions …