A person’s environment has a profound impact on their moods, emotions, and stress levels. While it is typically associated with external or natural surroundings, the environment encompasses everything that surrounds you. This means that it also refers to built surroundings where people spend their time in.
Today, society can enjoy the protection and comfort of living in cities with urban infrastructures, however, this also means that the population is confined to built environments and has less contact with nature. As such, urban residents are in constant exposure to environmental stressors such as traffic, crowds, loud noises, thermal discomfort, and air pollution. Research shows that, especially in the urban context, environmental stressors can have adverse impacts on one’s mental health.
Given that your surroundings have an impact on your mental wellbeing, it is important to have an interaction with nature to mitigate stress as well as promote flourishing and resilience.
Connectedness with nature
Research reveals that engaging with nature can improve your physical health, including blood pressure, cortisol levels, and heart rate variability. Moreover, it can contribute to your emotional wellbeing by enhancing self-control and helping you feel more alive and empathic. Spending time in natural environments has also been found by numerous studies to be beneficial for generating positive emotions, recovering from stress, facilitating concentration, and improving moods.
However, exposure alone is not the whole picture when it comes to environmental wellbeing. Even though exposure to nature and connectedness with nature are both linked to positive health outcomes, connectedness refers to a deeper emotional attachment as a result of being in a natural environment, promoting positive feelings such as compassion, awe, gratitude, and mindfulness.
P. Wesley Schultz (2002) explains that being connected with nature involves the following components that respectively correspond to connectedness, caring, and commitment:
- Cognitive component – This refers to defining one’s self as being part of nature.
- Affective component – At this level, an emotional bond for nature is formed through caring for the environment.
- Behavioral component – This is when a person expresses their desire and commitment to protecting nature.
Research shows that having a stronger sense of connection to nature is linked to positive wellbeing in terms of living a more meaningful life and feeling more energetic and happier. People who feel connected with nature also tend to exhibit pro-environmental behaviors. So, it makes sense to take a closer look at how you can enhance your connection with nature and improve wellbeing. Aside from living in harmony with nature to promote one’s health and wellbeing, it can also lead to the betterment of the environment as a whole.
Spend more time in nature
It has been well-established that engaging in physical activities is a key to mental health. Outdoor activities in green spaces such as local parks, forests, or gardens can provide you with additional restorative benefits of nature. Exposure to forested settings also leads to a better stress response with lower cortisol levels, pulse rates, and blood pressure. Other natural environments such as aquatic environments and beaches have also been found to positively influence mental and emotional wellbeing.
Research suggests that people who spend at least 2 hours a week in natural environments are more likely to report mental health benefits than those who do not. In addition to cognitive and affective gains of interacting with nature settings in healthy adults, walking within forested areas has been found to improve moods by reducing repeated negative thoughts in individuals with depressive symptoms. Nature settings involve fascinating stimuli from activities such as practicing mindfulness as well as reflecting on and experiencing nature with all senses helps you relax and recharge.
Connect with nature through gardening
Gardening is another way to experience the healing power of nature. Gardening allows you to bring nature to your surroundings, your backyard, and even your balcony. While engaging with gardening, you can practice mindfulness to restore and recharge your mind by shifting your focus away from stressful thoughts.
In addition to its beneficial impacts on active lifestyles and mental wellbeing, community gardening projects can enhance social interaction as well. By engaging in gardening, you can also grow your own food including vegetables, fruit trees, and herbs. Doing so can also help you develop healthy eating habits.
With more people realizing the healing power of nature, therapeutic horticulture practices gain more attention. Therapeutic Horticulture is a designed process of intervention to cultivate benefits of plant-related activities and gardening to provide stress relief to people from a wide range of populations. Research suggests that horticultural activities increase relaxation and cheerfulness while reducing depression and anxiety levels.
Healthy personal environments: biophilic design
Apart from the natural environment, your personal environment has an impact on your mood and productivity. There are some steps you can take to improve your relationship with your personal space. By bringing bits of nature into your living environment, you can benefit from the restorative effects of nature and trigger positive emotional experiences.
As derived from the theory of biophilia, biophilic design can be considered as a set of applied methods to reconnect with nature in built environments to satisfy the innate need to affiliate with nature. To have direct experience of nature in your built environments, you can use indoor plants, natural light, water elements, and natural ventilation. Bringing images of nature into your space and using natural colors and materials also have a key role in biophilic design practices.
Studies have shown that designing your environments with natural elements makes you happier and inspired which can increase performance and reduce stress. Recent research found that having houseplants triggered positive emotional wellbeing during the lockdowns brought about by COVID-19. Meanwhile, people who had no indoor plants and little natural light in their personal environments reported a more frequent experience of negative emotions such as sadness and stress compared to those who have plants.
By taking these simple steps, you can develop your connection with nature and benefit from the restorative effects to recharge your mind and spirit, and recover from stress and exhaustion.