Our relationship with nature has emerged as one of the most valuable sources of resilience and pleasure during lockdown.
This article was published in The Ecologist
Fifty percent of the world’s population has been restricted indoors – some of us alone, some of us with family, flatmates or sharing accommodation with people not of our choosing. It has been a time of rapid change and uncertainty.
We’re having to adjust to new ways of filling our time, socialising, managing work routines, children’s education and our emotional wellbeing. The quality of our relationships has been brought to the fore, making a huge difference to how supported we feel and how smoothly we get through times of crisis and challenge.
In a process of re-evaluating what matters to us, some have felt gratitude for their circumstances, some have been given cause for reflection on what isn’t working for them and have found relationships and lifestyles lacking.
This period has revealed to many another truth – that it’s not just people we have a relationship with, we also have an emotional relationship with nature. Just as with parents, siblings and friends – the quality of our relationship with nature will impact on our sense of well-being.
For many of us there has been an increased appreciation of nature as a place of solace and rejuvenation during this time of confinement. Nature has been a literal lifeline to help us find calm and grounding. With all the change and unreality, it has remained constant and reliable.
Nature can be befriended, just like with any relationship, it deepens the more time you spend with someone and lockdown has presented this opportunity to nurture connection through regular companionship. With many people spending as much time in nature in this short lockdown period, as they would usually over a year.
Across parks and open spaces, in cities in particular, natural settings have been an oasis of peace and wonder, people who don’t ordinarily visit are discovering a new love in taking the time to notice, pause and watch the intricacies of springtime and to absorb the joy and freedom in roaming during the golden hour of time permitted out.
In terms of face to face contact, especially for those home alone, nature has been the one consistent relationship that some have had during the lockdown period. Nature can be seen everyday and greeted with tactility in a way we’re not able to with human others, beyond those in our household.
As a Nature Allied Psychotherapist I help people explore their intimate emotional relationship with nature, as well as human relationships. Nature is a focus of exploration and a co-therapist facilitating the therapeutic process.
My practice is underpinned by the philosophy that nature is able to offer us the core conditions of a primary care giver, providing the potential of a secure base and positive attachment. These qualities have brought sustenance during this period of stress, change and anxiety.
The therapeutic nature experience isn’t just subjective: areas of the brain associated with rumination are less active after a 90 minute walk in nature, giving substance to the notion of going for a walk clear our mind.
Being in nature decreases the stress hormone cortisol and lowers our heart rate, reduces depression and anxiety, uplifts our mood, increases meditative feelings and chemicals released by trees soothe both our nervous systems; people who live near green spaces live longer for a reason.
Nature acts as a buffer to life stresses, with rural children fairing better in response to similar challenges faced by urban children due to nature’s health promoting properties, and she has played this role for us too during lockdown.
There has been a heightened awareness of how much nature does for us even in a passive way, the brilliance of nature is that she has a positive benefit on our emotional health and physiology simply by being present.
We need these spaces to breathe in a literal and emotional sense, especially when times get tough. They are places of refuge, sanctuary, intimacy and rejuvenation.
In response we feel, love, appreciation and happiness; there is an emotional relationship with natural settings. This also means that we are impacted by separation, just as we miss people, the one hour restrictions of the lockdown have brought feelings of loss in not having unfettered contact with nature – not getting to experience the fullness of the seasonal change, missing out on basking in the energy of springtime; not having the freedom to connect with her at will leaves a yearning.
Advice that we should exercise locally and not travel by car to access natural settings raises the importance of green spaces in urban areas – where over 83 percent of the UK population resides – in order to be able to support human health and maintain cities as liveable places.
There are still many in the UK not within easy reach of open spaces: 2.6 million Britains are without access to green space within a ten minute walk.
Access is also racialised, a higher percentage of BAME people live in areas most deficient in access to green spaces and are most affected by recent park closures during the lockdown period as we are less likely to have gardens. Our relationship with nature and open countryside has also been tainted by a history of disenfranchisement from nature in the UK.
The Covid-19 outbreak has elevated the status of parks and urban green spaces, demonstrating that parks are essential assets and not luxuries.
Nature is an intrinsic part of our humanity and an essential source for meeting our needs. Nature should be central to any strategy concerned with well-being; economic, health, education, transport.
At the same time that the NHS and welfare state were established there was also acknowledgment that nature served the nation’s health as much as hospitals and health insurance. In 1949 Lord Silkin proposed that nature – in the form of access to the countryside and national parks – also provided a health service: “The enjoyment of our leisure in the open air and the ability to leave our towns and walk on the moors and in the dales without fear of interruption are, with all respect to my right hon. Friends the Ministers of Health and of National Insurance, just as much a part of positive health and wellbeing as are the building of hospitals or insurance against sickness.”
In spirit and in policy, we owe a huge debt to nature in supporting our health.
Under normal circumstances, parks and green spaces have been estimated to offer the NHS £370 million savings towards mental health care, during Covid-19 natural spaces have proved invaluable.
Challenges such as Covid-19 show why real wealth should be measured by the quality of our relationships, during these difficult times many of us have been given cause to reflect on the importance of healthy relationships with those close to us and also with the natural world.
Lets hold on to this reminder of how precious nature is and when this period is over, continue to make nature a meaningful part of our daily life.