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Nature’s Benefits for Mental Health May Not Work So Well When Pressured

  • May 06, 2021
  • Anxiety, Depression, Patients and Families

During the more than a year of pandemic restrictions, access to parks and other green spaces have been very important escapes for many, offering a place to go for exercise and social interaction when other options weren’t available. Fifteen national parks set new recreation visitation records in 2020, despite temporary park closures and restrictions in response to the pandemic.

Researchers at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom recently examined the mental health benefits of nearby access to green spaces during the pandemic. They surveyed more than 5,500 people about their home and neighborhood and their mental health and well-being first in March/April and then again in June/July after the first peak has lessened.

They found that living within a 5-minute or less walk to a park or other green space was associated with better well-being. Results were similar across demographic groups. The results “suggest that both public and private green space are an important resource for health and wellbeing in times of crisis,” and can help make communities more resilient.

This study is part of a growing body of research demonstrating that access to green space can help lessen the impact of stressful experiences and contribute to physical and mental well-being, including improved cognitive performance, increased physical activity, reduced mental fatigue and stress, increased sense of safety and increased social cohesion. One specific finding in a study by Gregory Bratman, Ph.D., with the University of Washington, suggests that being in nature can reduce rumination. Rumination, repetitive negative thinking, is associated with greater risk of depression and other mental health disorders.

But Is Prescribed Nature Helpful?

Another recent study sought to examine whether nature contact can help in recovery from mental disorders. Michelle Tester-Jones, Ph.D., with the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter Medical School, and colleagues looked at the nature-related motivations, practices and experiences of people with common mental disorders. They used data from an 18-country survey of more than 2,500 people being treated for mental disorders.

The authors found that individuals with mental disorders “seem to be using nature for self-management” and that most reported visiting nature more than once a week. However, when the individuals felt pressured by people around them to spend time in nature, some of the benefits were lost. While feeling pressured to visit nature led a greater likelihood of a visit, it was associated with higher visit-related anxiety and with lower intrinsic motivation and lower visit happiness.

The results suggest “that although some (perceived) pressure may be effective at getting people out, it may undermine intrinsic pleasure from visiting nature,” the authors conclude. Tester-Jones and colleagues caution about directing nature experiences: “‘green prescription’ programs need to be sensitive and avoid undermining intrinsic motivation and nature-based experiences.”


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