To mark Mental Health Awareness Week 2021, NWT Reserves Officer Robert Morgan explores how the natural world can make a huge difference to our wellbeing - and how 30 Days Wild could benefit you.
Last summer, when there was little to do other than go for a local walk, many people commented that spending time with nature had helped them cope with the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on their lives.
Various institutions, including government departments, are now starting to come around to the idea that attachment to nature has a fundamental effect on our wellbeing, particularly our mental health. This link has now extended to social prescribing by GPs, who may recommend something as simple as a walk in the woods, and this approach can provide an antidote to a more sedentary lifestyle which has been exacerbated by extensive home working.
Those working in wildlife conservation have always understood the healing qualities that the natural world provides, but if pressed couldn't necessarily explain why. Despite there being so much gloomy news concerning the environment these days, it is surprising how positive I have found 'wildlife people' to be. Intuitively we all seem to know that immersion in nature is good for us, but formerly it was terribly under-rated and little account was made of it when considering the cost of the country's health.
Attitudes are changing and common-sense is now being backed up by several scientific studies that prove definitively that a connection with nature improves, even heals, both physical and mental complaints. It has been demonstrated that the involvement of children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) improves their ability to concentrate and has a strong calming effect. All children exposed to the natural world showed increases in an ability to learn, particularly through seeing and hearing wildlife, with children viewed as 'lacking academic achievement' having increased levels of self-esteem through their knowledge of plants and animals. Climbing trees, running through meadows or paddling in streams teaches children how to take reasonable risks. Discovering and exploring nature builds creativity and of course provides important exercise.
In adults, involvement in the natural world, particularly where physical activity leads to environmental improvements, results in better life satisfaction. It has also been shown that understanding the natural world creates greater empathy. This new knowledge has led to various eco-therapies, but of course one doesn't need an 'ology' to understand that exercise, fresh air and visual stimulus helps with hypertension, respiratory problems and cardiovascular illness.
Each June, Norfolk Wildlife Trust invites people to participate in the 30 Days Wild challenge. We encourage people to carry out 'random acts of wildness' - be it sleep under the stars, visit a nature reserve or photograph a different plant or insect each day. During last year's lockdown the highest ever number of participants were recorded across all the UK's wildlife trusts. Consciously, or not, it appears tens of thousands of people were self-medicating with the remedy of nature, a daily prescription of flora and fauna.
In conjunction with the University of Derby, the Wildlife Trusts carried out a five year study; in part it concentrated on people that did not necessarily see themselves as being connected to nature. Prior to undertaking the 30 Days Wild challenge a survey was carried out to collect data on age, gender, health, happiness and connection to nature. In summary, those participants with the lowest connection to nature before their 30 Days Wild experience gained the greatest benefits by taking part in the challenge, and without exception everyone felt better as a result of their involvement.
Even more rewarding was that more than 30% of those that had very little to do with nature continued to be actively involved with wildlife conservation, either by supporting The Wildlife Trusts through membership or by volunteering in some form, further improving their physical and mental wellbeing. This goes to prove that what is good for nature, is also good for us.
Sign up for 30 Days Wild now! www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk/30dayswild
Robert Morgan is Norfolk Wildlife Trust Reserves Officer
Header image: Matthew Roberts