The challenges of urban lifestyles to well-being and the value of nature to emotional health

Urban lifestyles can leave us isolated – from people and nature – and the quality of our relationships and wellbeing suffers…there are parallels between the impact of being in urban settings and the psychological state of survival

Speech transcript:

The challenges of urban lifestyles to well-being and the value of nature to emotional health, The Making of a National Park City, Royal Festival Hall, 21 September 2016.

Good evening, my name’s Beth. I’m a Nature-based psychotherapist, I see all my clients outdoors using London’s parks and woods as a therapy room. I run a non profit called Wild in the City which helps people make nature a meaningful part of everyday life. We offer bushcraft and wellbeing activities in London’s wild and green spaces.

I’m going to be talking today about the challenges of urban lifestyles to wellbeing and the value of nature to emotional health.

Research shows what many of us already know through our own experience, that nature has health promoting characteristics improving our mood and helping us to feel good. Whereas grey urban environments can have a detrimental effect on us.

Urban lifestyles can leave us isolated – from people and nature – and the quality of our relationships and wellbeing suffers.

The emotional health of children is particularly at risk, increasing numbers of young people are labelled as having mental health problems and we do them a disservice by focusing on the symptoms without tackling the causes.

And we can do this by acknowledging ‘mental’ health as being about emotional responses to things happening in our relationships with people and place. Children are displaying the consequences of a wider systemic problem.

Often times there’s nothing wrong with these children, but there is a lot wrong with the environment that they are growing up in, – in terms of family dynamics but also lack of access to green spaces, cut off from the street, let alone the park, which means they are isolated from people as well as nature. And they’re left with no outlet for natural childhood energy, so you see young children suppressing emotion, acting out or displaying hyperactive behaviour and then we label them as having a problem when the problem is that they’re being kept in prison like conditions, shuffled from an indoor box at home, to an indoor box at school; cramped and stressed.

This prison lifestyle is cruel, it’s a deeply troubling that we’re slipping into normalising and accepting it as being ok. It happens because adults in society are feeling stressed and overwhelmed themselves. With the demands of urban lifestyles we have so little time for ourselves, that it is more convenient to manage children in front of a screen indoors, rather than relate with them outdoors.

We call this lack of contact with nature, nature deficit. By definition a deficit is a lack of something that is needed, it’s the state of not having enough of something necessary. Nature deficit is a form of neglect, children are lacking contact with nature which is necessary for healthy development.

There is a trauma in being disengaged from nature.

City lifestyles can stimulate our fight or flight responses. Neuroscientific research has shown that time in urban settings triggers areas of the brain associated with fear and stress. Urban environments can be over stimulating, with so many things demanding our attention. It’s in our face and the brain can interpret this as a threat or aggression, raising our adrenaline and leading to fatigue and unfocused thinking. ‎We move into our heads and detach from feelings to cope, isolating ourselves.

This is in stark contrast to how most of us experience natural settings. We tend to feel more connected and emotionally engaged with the world around us and it generally improves our mood. Neuroscientific research has shown that time in nature triggers areas of the brain associated with love and empathy. Being in nature lowers our cortisol levels and heart rate, making us feel more relaxed. Time in green spaces reduces stress, anxiety and depression and induces meditative feelings, improving our attention and focus.

What I want to show now is that there are parallels between the impact of being in urban settings and the psychological state of survival and the impact of being in natural settings and the psychological state of living.

Survival is a place of struggle where needs are not being met or there is significant hardship in meeting them. We might be experiencing a lack of resources and feel controlled by circumstances.

Survival is often a situation where something has gone wrong, we might be lost, trapped or isolated, both in physical or emotional terms. Just as research shows with being in urban environments, survival is stressful, triggering our fight or flight response, we may feel panic and fear, it elevates the stress hormone and raises adrenaline, affecting sleep, and our ability to think clearly. We park emotions to be able to cope in the moment.

When we’re living our general state is relaxed and comfortable, we have periods of rest and time for contemplation and reflection.

We are connected to our feelings and we’re able to process them in the moment, as they arise and can think things through clearly.

These are the same positive benefits that research shows come from being in nature. When we’re living we have the resources for growth as they’re not used simply to tread water as they are with survival. We’re able to meet our needs or ask for them to be met.

Urban settings then, can evoke the same feelings as being in a survival situation, whereas being in natural settings can evoke the same feelings as being in a state where we are living.

As a therapist I help people explore their relationships, with people and with nature, working through insecure attachments and helping people to find a secure base in natural settings.

Attachment theory is about how we bond to significant others. It describes our relationship with a primary care giver, usually the mother. If we have a reliable primary care giver, we form a secure attachment we can trust. However if we have an unreliable or absent caregiver we may develop insecure attachment style such as being anxious, avoidant or disorganised, and find it harder to form satisfying relationships.

When you are securely attached you feel safe, you have a secure base which allows you to flourish.

Nature is also a significant other to which we have an attachment.

If you have grown up without connection to nature, then you may develop an insecure attachment style, where it doesn’t feel that nature has any relevance in your life and perhaps dismiss nature as dirty or boring.

Being disconnected prevents people from accessing all the good qualities that nature has to offer.

We can only imagine then, the devastating neglect faced by urban young people with challenging family relationships, poor housing and lack of contact with nature – where would they find a secure base to feel safe and flourish?

Research shows that rural children experiencing similar life challenges fair better than urban children, because their access to the natural world creates a buffer to life stresses.

Nature is a wonderful emotional support system, offering the core conditions of an ideal primary care giver, being truly a mother.

Nature will always listen, she is always there. She is someone we can go to if we feel upset and feel unconditional acceptance, she’s not judging us, she’s honest and authentic.

We recommend having a conversation with nature every day, whether during an activity, walking or just sitting enjoying the wind on your face, being mindful. Or even going deeper, taking part in the in-depth conversation that is happening all around us, using traditional and ancient skills to connect. Nature is a book that is telling us something if we understand the language, we help people read the landscape with practices like natural navigation and animal tracking to decode what nature is saying to us and giving a connection to something much bigger than us.

There is a huge opportunity for time in nature to be used as a form of preventative care, fostering resilience in individuals and communities by accessing the health and social benefits of engaging with nature. As more and more people reside in cities we need to take seriously how we ensure that they are liveable. National Park City status would be part of a commitment to making sure we are living in cities rather than surviving in them.

Being over 47% green space, London has a special opportunity to help us use nature to live happy lives.