A surge in coronavirus cases nationwide has led to more restrictions. And people are struggling with how to deal with social isolation from friends and loved ones and how to live with school closings, rethinking holiday celebrations and working remotely. These hardships have led to public mental health challenges on a massive scale. There is a small bit of good news, though, about a remedy we all have at our fingertips to mitigate pandemic worry and frustration. A growing body of research indicates spending time in natural green spaces — parks, woodlands, mountains and beaches — has healing properties and underscores the value of exposure to nature for your mental and physical health during pandemic restrictions.
I live in the North Carolina mountains. Most days I’m fortunate enough to take five minutes to observe the towering peaks. I pay attention to their shape, size and colors and contemplate that they’ve been here for millions of years and will be here for many more. I feel anchored and settled. A wave of calm descends over me, raising my spirits, sometimes bringing me feelings of awe, much like in the John Muir quote: “We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.”
My five minutes of mountain-gazing helps me cope with the uncertainty of COVID-19. And science backs up my personal experience: Research shows that observing nature gives us a bigger perspective on our life circumstances, induces feelings of awe and reverence, and provides a certainty about the future that offsets the uncertainty of coronavirus fears.
A New Study
A new study just published in Ecological Applications suggests that nature around your home may help mitigate some of the negative mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Scientists in Tokyo, Japan conducted a survey of 3,000 citizens to quantify the association between five mental health outcomes (depression, life satisfaction, happiness, self-esteem, and loneliness) and the frequency of green space use and the presence of a green view through a window in the home.
The researchers identified an association between green space use and window views and higher self-esteem, life satisfaction, and happiness as well as lower incidences of depression and loneliness. “Our results suggest that nearby nature can serve as a buffer in decreasing the adverse impacts of a very stressful event on humans,” said lead author Masashi Soga of The University of Tokyo. “Protecting natural environments in urban areas is important not only for the conservation of biodiversity, but also for the protection of human health.”
This study follows other research showing that green time is associated with better mental health and cognitive functioning. A study in Scientific Reports found evidence that spending a minimum of 120 minutes a week in parks, woodlands, mountains or beaches is linked to better physical and mental health and enlarges your perspective on life. Plus, taking “Awe Walks”—strolls in which you intentionally shift your attention outward to the natural environment instead of inward, where you could be thinking of unfinished work—may mitigate many of the effects of prolonged sitting, chronic screen time and virtual fatigue.
Regular Doses of Nature
A regular dose of outdoor time can help mitigate the stress of coronavirus, especially as restrictions are expected to increase. Instead of eating lunch at your desk, find a park, arboretum, or other natural setting. Be mindful of the breeze, notice the colors and smells of leaves and flowers, pay attention to the sounds of insects in the bushes, rushing water, or warbling birds. If you have time on a break, take a jog around the block or a stroll in a green space, and you will go back to your desk with batteries recharged and head cleared.
As the days get shorter and colder and you can’t get outside, don’t fret. Studies suggest that simply viewing an aspect of nature from a window is restorative. So find a window and watch a squirrel scamper up a tree, birds nesting, or a magenta-bruised sunset. According to scientists, bringing the natural world inside reduces work stress and promotes calm and clarity. Breathe as much natural life into your personal space as possible by arranging your workstation to face scenes of wooded areas, water, sunset, landscapes or wildlife. If you don’t have a view, nature photos or paintings are good substitutes. An opened window with a soft breeze and nature sounds adds a natural touch. If you live in an urban area, you can bring in potted green plants, fresh flowers or a terrarium. Plus, a tabletop trickling waterfall, an aquarium, fish bowl or a CD with nature sounds could have stress-relieving and restorative properties. Breathe natural life into your workspace to optimize your productivity and capture the surprising twists and turns that bubble up from your creative depths. Studies indicate that you can get nature’s benefits without even leaving your sofa, that simply watching a nature documentary can reduce anxiety and raise your mood.
Whatever you do to cope with pandemic worries, make sure you find many ways to let nature transport you out of constant news feeds, worry, and rumination as the pandemic surges. As you take all the precautions recommended by the CDC, let Mother Nature calm and relax you, infusing you with mental clarity to replace the stress during these challenging times.
Keltner, D., Bowman, R. & Richards, H. (2020). Exploring the emotional state of ‘real happiness’. A study into the effects of watching natural history television content. Berkeley, CA: University of California, Berkeley. (Retrieved April 9, 2020: https://asset-manager.bbcchannels.com/workspace/uploads/bbcw-real-happiness-white-paper-final-v2-58ac1df7.pdf).
Masashi Soga, Maldwyn J. Evans, Kazuaki Tsuchiya, Yuya Fukano. A room with a green view: the importance of nearby nature for mental health during the COVID‐19 pandemic. Ecological Applications, 2020; DOI: 10.1002/eap.2248