Rediscovering Nature in 2011

MANY of our New Year resolutions will probably not last more than a few weeks.

However, there is one resolution that we should all make to deal with the stress, anxiety and depression that inevitably come with economic uncertainty.

This is to enjoy nature more. After all, our natural environment is not only free but it is good for our health too.

Like other animals that inhabit the planet, we are intimately connected with, embedded in, and inseparable from nature. We have an innate emotional and physical dependency on our natural environment.

Unfortunately, we seemed to have forgotten this basic tenet of our existence as we have developed our industrial and globalised society.

We are increasingly replacing nature with artificial man-made creations, which has led some thinkers to suggest that our separation from the natural world is having a negative impact on our overall mental health and wellbeing.

Depression affects approximately 121 million people worldwide. The World Health Organization predicts depression will be the second greatest cause of ill health globally by 2020. In the UK depression affects one in 10 people each year, with more than half of those experiencing more than one episode.

According to a 2007 national mental health survey, the percentage of people with a “common mental disorder” that causes marked emotional distress and interferes with daily function increased from 15.5 per cent in 1993 to 17.6 per cent in 2007.

This is approximately an additional million extra unhappy people. The largest increase was observed in women aged 45-64 whose rate rose by a fifth, while people living in low- income households were more likely to have a common mental disorder than those living in high-income households.

In 2008, there were 2.1 million more prescriptions of antidepressants in England than in 2007, leading to concerns that doctors are increasingly supplying the drugs as a “quick fix” without attempting to address the underlying cause of the problems.

In total, 36 million prescriptions were given out, an increase of 24 per cent over a five year period. The use of anti-depressants such as Prozac or sessions of cognitive therapy are increasingly seen as failing to deal with the root cause of many modern day mental health problems.

One approach that has been developed to deal with the stresses and strains of modern living is ‘Ecotherapy’, which can be defined as healing and growth nurtured by healthy interaction with the earth. It addresses common difficulties such as anxiety, depression and stress using nature-based methods.

Cynics will probably see these methods used to connect with nature as New Age mumbo jumbo, as they include working with plants and animals, detaching oneself from rigid artificial time schedules, changing home and working environments, dream therapy and wilderness retreats.

However, we should not forget that the belief that the natural environment is good for our mental and physical health is nothing new. Many medical professions, including Florence Nightingale, encouraged people to go the country to convalesce. The natural environment is seen as being a beneficial restorative environment that enhances mental energies and reduces stress.

Research has shown that prisoners whose cells overlooked farmland and trees had 24 per cent fewer sick visits than those in cells facing the prison yard. A 10-year comparative study of post-operative patients found hospital stay for patients with tree views was significantly shorter and patients required fewer painkillers and used less medication.

A study by the mental health charity, Mind, found that 90 per cent of people who took part in Mind green exercise activities said that the combination of nature and exercise is most important in determining how they feel.

A total of 71 per cent of respondents reported decreased levels of depression following a green walk compared to increased feelings of depression following an indoor shopping centre walk that was experienced by 22 per cent of respondents.

One way to deal with the stresses that lie ahead in 2011 is to make the most of nature. This requires replacing retail therapy with ecotherapy and the city gym with the green gym. We should abandon the characterless shopping centres, windowless gyms for natural vegetation and attractive landscapes.

We should enjoy gardening, cycling and walking more. In particular, making the most of those parks, green fields and lanes in our local neighbourhood we have passed many times but never bothered to explore.

In a world that focuses on “doing” rather than “being”, it is easy not to find the time to nurture our spirit and feed our soul. Reconnecting with nature in the New Year could just be the pathway that guarantees a fitter, happier and more prosperous 2011.

© Gary Haq 2011

Photo credits: Shutterstock