Nature and wellbeing

A colleague’s t-shirt reads “Better a rainy day on a hill than a sunny day in the office”.  Now while there are definitely some occasions, for example on a wet, dreary winter’s day, when we really would rather be sat in a warm office, generally many would agree with the sentiment, and ongoing scientific research is now providing compelling evidence to ‘prove’ what we all really know, which is that contact with nature and the outdoors improves physical health and mental wellbeing.

It’s logical when you think about it.  We are ‘hard wired’ to nature, originally surviving as hunter gatherers, within close social networks and integrated within our natural surroundings.  We simply aren’t designed for 21stcentury living, for spending much of our daily lives indoors, travelling by car, looking at screens and becoming increasingly disconnected from nature.

We also live in a society where physical conditions such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease are prevalent, and where it is estimated that 25% of us will experience a mental health problem at some point in our lives.

So just what can contact with nature do for us?  The research is fascinating:

Being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, reduces anger, fear and stress and contributes to physical wellbeing by reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and the production of stress hormones.

Nature helps us to cope with pain.  Because we are genetically programmed to find trees, plants, water, and other nature elements engrossing, we are absorbed by nature scenes and distracted from our pain and discomfort.  Studies have shown that hospital patients who could see a natural scene through their hospital window recovered more quickly, and needed fewer painkillers.

Time spent in nature connects us to each other.  Research in America suggests that residents in one city who had trees and green space around their homes reported knowing more people, having stronger feelings of unity with neighbours, being more concerned with helping and supporting each other, and having stronger feelings of belonging than those in areas without trees. In addition to this greater sense of community, they had a reduced risk of street crime, lower levels of violence and aggression between domestic partners, and a better capacity to cope with life’s demands.  Interestingly, this experience of connection may be explained by studies measuring brain activity.  When participants viewed nature scenes, the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love lit up, but when they viewed urban scenes, the parts of the brain associated with fear and anxiety were activated.  It appears as though nature inspires feelings that connect us to each other and our environment.

The benefit of the environment on our lives also extends to cognitive ability, where studies of students taking an exam found that exam scores were higher for those students who could view a natural scene out of the window as opposed to an urban view.  Walking in nature also has benefits for both attention and memory: after spending an hour in nature both increased by 20% – an effect not mirrored by those walking in an urban area.  According to the researchers, being outside in the natural environment produces similar effects to meditating.

Nature is amazing, and we can relish easy access to the wider countryside of Kent, surrounded by trees, water and the rolling hills and woods that make up the North Downs; to quote the former Archbishop Rowan Williams, “Receive the world that God has given. Go for a walk. Get wet. Dig the earth”!


An article from the Wye Eco Church Group, copied and adapted with permission.


Some sources of information on things to do outdoors this summer: events and beach cleans events events events walks

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