Use nature to support your well-being during the Covid-19 pandemic

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“You can buy a houseplant or put flowers in a vase. In addition to bringing benefits, such as cleaner air, you will experience similar positive effects to spending time outside.”

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The news is filled with information about the novel corona virus. Day after day we receive updates about the number of people infected and are given further instructions on how to protect our physical well-being. Adherence to the guidelines provided is critical for reducing the strain on the health system and is estimated to save hundreds of thousands of lives. In comparison, the government only provided general information about how to maintain our mental health and well-being during these unprecedented times. However, understanding the brain can help us provide more detail on how to sustain mental well-being during lockdown.

With more people getting infected every day, we are all worried about the health of our loved ones, feeling helpless about the situation. Working from home brings its own challenges with many of us struggling to focus on the task at hand. Our weekly shopping has rarely been so stressful. And due to limited opportunities to socialize, the number of us experiencing loneliness has dramatically escalated. Naturally, all of this is taking its toll on our well-being, but as practitioners like Dr William Bird have been advocating, nature can counter these negative emotions. Research is increasingly supporting this view.

Spending time in nature within the guidelines provided by the government directly and positively affects our cognitive function. Scientists increasingly recognise the beneficial effects of nature exposure on immune functioning, mood and feelings of well-being. Experiencing nature has been shown to reduce stress levels, help people feel less overwhelmed and more in control of the situation. Indeed, my own research in the School of Psychology has shown that a walk in a park (versus along busy city street) can enhance our ability to ignore distractions subsequently. Taking a stroll in a leafy green area should, therefore, help people make the transition to working from home. The more positive emotions often experienced by being in nature can also help you overcome loneliness and low mood.

To maximise the benefits of nature, simply be present. Instead of connecting with people, connect with nature. Instead of thinking about the virus, think about what is growing and thriving around you. Turn off your phone and try to see, hear, smell and feel the unfolding of the beautiful English spring. Stop to smell the hundreds of flowers and blossoms appearing in front gardens and parks! The Japanese, creators of the shinrin-yuko (which literally means forest bathing), go as far as walking barefoot on the grass, feeling the leaves, branches and bark of trees with their hands and smelling flower blossoms. This might feel odd for some of you, especially at first, so ease into it by taking a short walk in a park or simply sitting in your garden, if you have one. Like many others, you will very quickly start to see the benefits for yourself.

There is no need to worry about adding something else to your already endless to-do list. Studies suggest that merely 20 minutes a day will allow you to benefit from nature exposure and you can easily combine this with other activities. For example, you can eat lunch in your garden, go to a park for your daily exercise or walk along a tree-lined street when running errands.

If these options are not right for you, you can bring nature into your home with a few simple steps. You can buy a houseplant or put flowers in a vase. In addition to bringing benefits, such as cleaner air, you will experience similar positive effects to spending time outside. And if you do not like to fill your home with plants, use essential oils to bring the smell of nature into your home, or simply fool your brain by watching a video of a nature walk, allowing you to experience nature at your convenience.

All of this should be easy to implement along with the government’s current advice. At this time of great uncertainty, it is important to make the most of our restricted time outside. Looking after your well-being will not only benefit you but also your family and society at large. So, interact with nature and enjoy all the benefits it has on offer. Your brain will thank you!

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