Why Do We Escape to Nature?

The wind in my hair, fresh air all around and time with my dog… I do enjoy starting my day with a walk.  A little bit of exercise helps me wake up, and helps me feel like the day begins with doing something good for myself, and taking something off my list of things to do of an evening.

Many of us have embraced walks during lockdown, as a way to get out and enjoy exercise within the five kilometre limit – and I have enjoyed seeing so many people out walking, especially as families.  It has been a lifesaver for many of us – a valid reason to be out of the house.

But I don’t think it has just been the physical act of walking that has made this such an important part of my lockdown life – it has been the outdoors and the act of being in nature.  This is something I have become much more conscious of during the pandemic that has kept us indoors so much – the need to experience nature and wide-open spaces.  After working from home in a small shared study, being outdoors felt almost luxurious.

I have been very grateful to find many lovely outdoor spaces near me during this second lockdown – discovering each new one with a special delight and a sense of wonder that it took a situation like this for me to realise what was in such close proximity.  I understand now why all new planned suburbs and housing estates have percentages dedicated to green space – and I will always now be conscious of how much green surrounds any area I live in.

I am especially fortunate to live within five kilometres of Wilson Botanic Park – I place I realized I had only seen a very small percentage of.  Now I find myself drawn there at least twice a week – sometimes for a good long walk with terrific views, and other times for a more relaxed walk and a picnic lunch in the outdoors.  I know that it is a place I can go to on the days I don’t feel so great… and while this is reassuring, it made me want to understand more about how nature speaks to us as human beings.

When you consider the whole of human history, spending so much time in buildings is probably quite a modern phenomenon.  Our ancestors spent many hours a day working the land, and cavemen virtually lived in the open – so our bodies are very much designed to have regular fresh air and to experience more movement that my sedentary desk work often allows.

So it makes sense that nature calls to us and improves our mental and physical health.

Nature is calming – reconnecting with the natural environment is not only mindful in a psychological sense, but also has physiological impacts that help calm the body.  Being in nature significantly reduces our cortisol levels – cortisol being known as the “stress hormone”, as well as our blood pressure and heart rate.

I find too that being in nature reminds us of the beauty of the world.  In difficult times, the world can seem like a harsh place.  But going to breathtaking surroundings reminds us that there is much beauty in the world as well.  And the act of going there for the purpose of experiencing calm also reinforces to us that this beauty is at our fingertips as a balm for the soul.

Nature has also helped to remind me in lockdown that the world is infinite – and although I may feel hemmed in at times, there is still so much out there.  In Lockdown One I found myself both stunned and reassured by climbing Mount Cannibal – a place I had never been before until we began looking for ways to exercise and enjoy the outdoors.  The view from the top was so stunning it kept drawing me up the steep stairs.  I miss that in this second lockdown, where we can only travel five kilometres to exercise.

Being in nature also helps us to become more focused – largely I believe as we leave behind the many devices and distractions of modern life and learn how to be in one place – and to savour it.   Nature can be a great teacher – showing us how much we can see and experience if we pay attention, and how much we have to be grateful for in this world.  That sense of awe we often experience (especially those, like me, who have Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence as a key character strength), helps us develop gratitude and an appreciation for small wonders.

So when I looked into this subject much of it made sense and resonated with my own feelings and experiences – but I also discovered some interesting and unexpected benefits of spending time in nature as well!

Studies have shown that nature has a positive impact on depression and inexplicably, memory.  Perhaps a nice walk in a park would be a good tip for Year 12 students!

Apparently, even viewing green spaces on screens can have a positive psychological effect – by replicating in many ways the impact of being out there for real.  This could have positive implications for how we design our living and workspaces to conscious boost wellbeing.

Even working in a small garden at home has the same outcome as being in nature – even if it’s only potted plants that you are caring for.  In fact, caring for a plant can help young people learn about the need to nurture others – as well as themselves!  Like plants, there are certain things we all need to thrive, and this can be a great conversation starter with little people.

But there is a catch! Time outdoors really improves our psychological health – but to see a substantial improvement, we need to commit significant time and commitment to being in nature. A 2019 study by the European Centre for Environment and Human Health showed that the greatest impact was shown by people who committed to at least two hours in nature per week.

My tips?  Make an effort, and commit to being in nature consciously (by setting out for a good walk) or unconsciously, by arranging outdoor exercise and catch ups as often as possible.  Recognise the need for nature and its impact, and you will find yourself longing for it.

Then take off your shoes, feel the grass on your feet and soak up as much sun as possible in these warmer months!