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The role of Nature in managing Stress: In Everyday Life and Beyond

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By Trish Darcy, Research Associate, University of York 

A sign saying 'take a breath' out in the countryside
Nature engagement during the Covid 19 pandemic to support wellbeing (Patricia Darcy)

Stress is a subjective experience occurring when an individual assesses the demands of the stressor to exceed their resources to cope with the stressor, resulting in biological, physiological, behavioural, and psychological changes for the individual (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). While acute stress can be beneficial in the short-term e.g., preparation for an examination, chronic stress has been shown to have a negative impact on health and wellbeing. Specifically in relation to mental health, chronic stress is associated with increased levels of anxiety and depression (Hammen, 2005), and considered a risk factor in a range of physical health conditions (e.g., cancer, diabetes, CVD; (Cohen et al., 2007)).

Modern living is associated with a variety of stressors, for example, environmental stressors (e.g., air and noise pollution); lifestyle stressors (e.g., sedentary lifestyles, more time spent indoors); and personal stressors (e.g., impact of the cost-of-living crisis). These modern-day stressors in conjunction with changes to our living environments i.e., urban living and ‘nature-deficit’ environments (Louv, 2008), have been linked with chronic stress and mental ill-health (McMichael & Beaglehole, 2000).

Currently more than half of the global population live in an urban environment, and projected estimates are up to 68% of the global population by the mid twenty-first century (Kundu & Pandey, 2020). Urban living is associated with a variety of stressors (including environmental stressors) (Dye, 2008), and reduced access to natural spaces. In Britain, one in eight households have no access to a private/shared garden and black people compared to white people are four times as likely to have no access to a private outdoor space (ONS, 2020). Furthermore, UK policy recommends homes should be situated within 300m of an accessible green space (Natural England, 2008), as greater residential greenness is associated with lower levels of physiological stress (i.e., cortisol) and subjective stress (Gidlow et al., 2016; Roe et al., 2013).

Bright red lupins in a sunny well manicured garden
Accessible urban natural spaces for people with health conditions (Olivia Walsh)

The World Health Organisation recognises our environment as a significant determinant of our health (WHO, 2014). Natural environments such as green spaces (i.e., parks, woods, areas dominated by vegetation), and blue spaces (i.e., coastal, and inland waterways) have the potential to function as health promoting and health sustaining environments. Potential pathways connecting natural environments to health suggest three main areas: decreasing harmful impacts (e.g. reducing exposure to environmental stressors and pollutants), restoring capacities (e.g., stress recovery) and developing capacities (e.g., opportunities for physical and social activities) (Markevych et al., 2017).

Specifically in relation to stress, nature can provide us with the necessary resources for buffering, managing, and recuperating from stress through lowering subjective feelings of stress, decreasing physiological stress, increasing positive mood, and decreasing negative mood (Berto, 2014; Kondo et al., 2018).

To demonstrate, higher levels of nearby nature in residential areas in NYC were found to buffer the impact of life stress in children, with the greatest impact for children with highest risk (Wells & Evans, 2003). Similarly, being in nature (compared to exercise and social support) had the greatest effect for students affected by a life crisis, where higher degrees of nature experiences were associated with less crisis impact (Ottosson & Grahn, 2008).

Nature was also found to be an important resource for coping with and managing stress during the Covid 19 pandemic, in particular for those who were shielding or clinically vulnerable (Darcy et al., 2022; Labib et al., 2022). A diverse range of nature experiences were employed to support mental health and wellbeing, including indoor nature (Dzhambov et al., 2021), nature views (Soga et al., 2021), private garden spaces (Egerer et al., 2022), public natural spaces (Grima et al., 2020), and digital nature (e.g., social media challenges, webcam travel; (Lee et al., 2022)). Learning from this period highlights the importance of both private and public natural spaces in supporting health and wellbeing, with recommendations for use of public health messaging to promote nature engagement in any future public health crisis.

Two people measuring a space in a flower bed
Greencare courses in the community (Patricia Darcy)

Nature also can have a significant role in recovery from stress, where seminal research in this area found stress recovery was faster and more complete after exposure to natural environments compared to urban environments (Ulrich et al., 1991). Moreover, specific aspects or qualities of the natural environment may be integral to stress recovery (Grahn & Stigsdotter, 2010). For example, natural environments which are perceived positively (e.g., beautiful, safe, relaxing) and elicit positive emotions (e.g., happiness, awe) may be preferential in stress recovery (Korpela & Hartig, 1996).

To help conceptualise the relationship between nature and health and wellbeing, a continuum of nature engagement ranging from nature in our everyday life to more bespoke initiatives targeted at groups with defined needs, can be used.

Positioned at one end of this nature-health continuum is contact with nature in our everyday life (this may or may not be intentional or purposeful), for example, gardening, exercising in a park, or walking to work along a tree-lined street. Unstructured gardening activities have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety (Fjaestad et al., 2023), while park visits can reduce health anxiety in older adults (Dzhambov & Dimitrova, 2014). However, challenges associated with both access and use of urban parks for women, older adults, and those with health conditions has been previously highlighted, with recommendations for more inclusive decision-making and design of these spaces (Darcy et al., 2019).

At the centre of the nature-health continuum are health promotion initiatives aimed at the general public. These include exercise initiatives in natural environments (i.e., “Parkruns”), community and allotment gardening, and conservation projects. Parkruns have the potential to support positive mental health through reducing stress, where the free, largely low-competitive, social, and inclusive nature of Parkruns are central to participation and wellbeing impacts (Grunseit et al., 2020). Similar to research on the benefits of gardening during the Covid 19 pandemic (Darcy et al., 2022; Egerer et al., 2022), allotment and community gardening can be impactful in reducing stress (Van den Berg et al., 2010). Moreover, both ‘doing’ a gardening activity or just ‘being’ at an allotment can realise benefits through lowering subjective stress and supporting healthy aging (Hawkins et al., 2013).

Close up of some bright orange flowers in a pot
Private garden space during Covid 19 lockdowns (Olivia Walsh)

Finally, green care initiatives at the furthest end of the nature-health continuum consist of nature-based activities designed and developed for individuals with specific needs (Bragg & Leck, 2017), and are inclusive of activities such as care farming, animal assisted therapy, and social and therapeutic horticulture. These types of nature activities have shown positive benefits in addressing health and social care issues (Bragg & Atkins, 2016; Coventry et al., 2021).

Moreover, greencare initiatives delivered through Social Prescribing pathways (i.e., the provision of non-clinical services via a connecting referral pathway delivered by the community and voluntary sector to support users’ health and wellbeing) are referred to as Green Social Prescribing (GSP). GSP forms a central component of the UK government’s Covid 19 mental health recovery plan to transform mental health services and reduce demand on the health and social care system. In 2021, an investment of over £5.5 million was made to embed GSP in communities. Seven ‘test and learn’ sites were funded across England, one of which was the Humber and North Yorkshire Health and Care Partnership. This programme followed a cohort of adults with mild to moderate mental ill-health and found that participating in GSP activities (e.g., horticultural and care farming, conservation activities, exercise in nature) was associated with significant improvements in anxiety and depression. Moreover, GSP activities ranging from 5-12 weeks were found to have the greatest mental health and wellbeing benefits (Darcy et al., 2023).

In summary, nature has an important role in supporting our mental health and wellbeing through buffering and reducing stress and supporting stress recovery. Natural environments have the potential to act as health promoting and health sustaining environments by facilitating engagement with nature in our everyday life, supporting group-based health promotion activities in the community, and through the delivery of bespoke programmes tailored for specific health and social care needs.

Trish Darcy, Research Associate, Mental Health and Addiction Research Group, Department of Health Sciences, University of York

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References

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Posted On: 01/04/2024

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