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How does nature influence wellbeing and refocus the mind?

Time is the 21st century's most precious commodity – we all live in a world where rushing around seems more normal than having a relaxing coffee break

The world we live in

Time is the 21st century's most precious commodity – we all live in a world where rushing around seems more normal than having a relaxing coffee break. Stopping or pausing is not an option for many, as it comes with the worry of falling behind with work or missing out on promotion. Keeping up with the rat race over long periods of time very often risks losing precious peace of mind. However, the natural world works at a different pace than our 'screen-influenced' lives.

At work, more and more is expected of us. Although our attention span is only around 45 minutes, we often find ourselves working for 8-9 hours straight. Recent studies show that our attention span is on the decline.1We can only imagine what will happen in future generations! It doesn't help that we are constantly bombarded by excessive information wherever we go. Our brain's reflective system works relentlessly to block out all unnecessary distractions...radios playing, our phone, social media, noise, chatty family members etc, but there is only so much an overloaded brain can take.2 When we try to cram more and more information into an already overheated brain, we can easily trip our emergency fuse. Asking too much of ourselves can lead to mental exhaustion and could be rapidly followed by anxiety, depression or sleepless nights.3

So, what now?...

What can we do in a world that has such high expectations of us? We all need to work typically 8-9 hours a day; on top of that, we cannot just 'work', we must be productive! How can we take a "brain-cation" without taking a holiday from work?

Don't worry, there is a solution to this conundrum and it's within reach for all of us.
To recharge or reset the beautiful machine that runs in our heads, look no further than a humble green leaf – there lies a solution to mend your mind and refocus. So, go outside and look for nearest park or green space and have a walk around.4 'Is that it?'- you may say. Well, try doing it without looking at your phone. Simply walk around the park and enjoy the reality of the natural world – experience it with all your senses.

The attention restoration theory, proposed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan,5 links the influence of time spent in nature with helping to reload our mental and attentional capacity. According to Kaplan, if we expose ourselves to direct and indirect references to nature such as walking in the park, or looking at nature on our computer desktop, that helps to give the brain a much needed break from "directed attention". This simple task could also help to rebuild mental functioning.6

Simple tips to incorporate in your daily routine

If you live in urban environment, visit a green space nearby regularly.

-  Make your walks an intimate time between you and your brain, so no phone and no distractions. You might find it difficult at first and your hand might automatically stray to your pocket for your phone. But I promise that it will get easier and better each time. When you close your 'technology eye', reality will open its doors and you can start to appreciate more detail around you, as if seeing the world again for the first time.
-  If you don't have a park or suitable green space nearby, put a foliage plant on your desk or in your house and look at it from time to time.
-  If you're not able to have a plant on your desk, you can always put nature visuals on your screensaver or computer desktop. Although not ideal, believe it or not, it's better than seeing no nature at all.7

Taking breaks during work to look at greenery or going outside during your lunchtime or after work can help you concentrate on work and maintain your performance. So, don't think that walking around the park is a waste of time, this practice will help you to feel restored and achieve better focus on daily tasks.8

How long should I spend in nature?

Studies show that around 2 hours spent in nature a week is beneficial for restoring mental health and focus.9 Saying that, Dr Kate Lee agrees that "It's really important to have micro-breaks," so even one minute of looking at grass, shrubs or trees reduces errors and improves concentration.10

What should I do next?

Plan your week to have morning walks before work or try walking during your lunch break. At the weekend, try to spend as much time as you can in nature. One common excuse for not going outside is that 'the weather is bad'. Well, there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. So do yourself a favour and invest in a good waterproof jacket, some thermals and walking boots.

If you can't think of any green spaces to walk around, you can always visit the National Trust website for inspiration. It's surprising how many natural treasures and beautiful places are within reach:

Now... close your device, grab your jacket and off you go!

1. Bradbury NA. Department of Physiology and Biophysics, Chicago Medical School, Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, North Chicago, Illinois Submitted 12 July 2016; accepted in final form 19 October 2016.
2. Daniel Kahneman. In Thinking, Fast and Slow.
4. Kaplan S. (1995) The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, v.15, Pages 169–82.
5. Kaplan R, Kaplan S. (1989). The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. Cambridge University Press.
6. Grinde B, Patil GG. (2009). Biophilia: Does visual contact with nature impact on health and wellbeing? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 6(9), Pages 2334–5.

2nd November 2020


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