16 May, 2023 | Posted by Marguerita Magennis

Mental Health Awareness: Time in Nature Supporting Wellbeing and Managing Anxiety

Mental Health Awareness: Time in Nature Supporting Wellbeing and Managing Anxiety

Mental health is an essential aspect of an individual's overall wellbeing. It is the state of a person's psychological and emotional mindset.

Mental health awareness has risen in recent years, and it is now recognised that these problems can be caused by various factors such as stress, genetics, environmental factors, as well as personal experiences and ACEs or trauma in early childhood (Berger et al, 2014).

It is important to remember that mental health can impact anyone regardless of age, gender or background, with research showing one in four people in Ireland will experience a mental health problem in any year.

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Mental Health and Anxiety

Anxiety is a common mental health issue affecting millions worldwide, and other aspects of mental health can often exasperate anxiety levels.

According to the World Health Organisation, around 264 million people suffer from anxiety disorders across the globe.

Anxiety can manifest in many ways, including panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive behaviours, and general feelings of unease or nervousness.

While medication and therapy are the most common treatments for anxiety, studies have shown that engaging with nature can also positively impact several areas of mental health, including anxiety, and this is particularly important when working with the younger child, as medication isn’t always the best solution, particularly for short term anxieties.

As parents and practitioners, it is important to encourage children to go outdoors, think about life in a positive way, explore nature, stretch their imaginations and learn at a young age to soak up and value those positive vibes we gain from the great outdoors.

Helping your child build a bug hotel, or hedgehog house gives them the incentive to revisit the outdoors stimulating a sense of worth, value and self-esteem, as they are caring for another living creature; all of which enhances positive energy, helping us to regulate our own emotions.

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Developing a routine that includes physical activity is a great way of not only improving your mood but helping to make friends and build relationships; being active releases chemicals in your brain, called neurotransmitters, that make you feel good, boosting self-esteem, as well as helping us sleep better, all of which can release tension, stress and mental fatigue.

Encouraging young children to engage with sports and outdoor activities from an early age can help them not only regulate their emotions but enhances resilience and helps them to feel better about themselves enhancing wellbeing and mental stability as they get older.

Take a moment and consider how nature has a calming effect on the mind and the body, think back to a time when you have been walking along a beach or in a forest, what a better way to help manage anxieties and stresses of life (Magennis, 2021).

Research shows us that spending time in nature can help reduce anxiety symptoms by lowering cortisol levels, increasing endorphins, and promoting relaxation (Berman et al, 2012).

Below are some of the ways in which engaging with nature can help improve mental health, specifically for those who struggle with anxiety.

Reduce Stress levels

Stress is a significant contributor to anxiety. Research shows that spending time in nature can help reduce stress levels creating a sense of security and stability. Studies have shown that individuals who spend time in nature experience reduced cortisol levels, a hormone produced in response to stress. Nature has a calming effect on the body, which can, in turn, help reduce anxiety symptoms, and often a child will open up and share their anxieties when they are feeling supported and secure.

Exposure to Natural Light

Sunlight is a natural source of vitamin D, a nutrient linked to improving mental health. Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with anxiety and depression, and spending time in nature can increase vitamin D production (Kerr et al, 2015). Additionally, exposure to natural light has been shown to improve mood and increase serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter responsible for regulating mood.

Increased Physical Activity

Engaging with nature can also lead to increased physical activity, which is linked to improved mental health, with supporting research indicating that exercise is an effective treatment for anxiety, as it promotes the release of endorphins, which are natural mood boosters. Walking, hiking, and other outdoor activities are great ways to exercise while enjoying nature's beauty.

Mindfulness and Presence

Engaging with nature can help promote mindfulness and presence. Mindfulness is being present in the moment, without judgement and keeping oneself grounded. Creswell (2017) highlights that practising mindfulness can help reduce anxiety symptoms and that engaging with nature provides a peaceful environment that can help individuals focus on the present moment and benefit those struggling with anxiety. Brain scanning technologies show that the physical structure of the brain changes when a person engages with mindfulness on a regular basis, showing how mindfulness can strengthen the parts of your brain that help us regulate our emotions and remain calm in stressful situations (First 5.ie). The amygdala (fight or flight) region in our brain becomes less active and helps to calm stress and anxiety levels (Berger et al, 2014).

Improved Social Connections

Engaging with nature can also lead to improved social connections, which are essential for mental health. Spending time in nature with others can create a sense of community and belonging, which can help reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness. Social connections have been linked to improved mental health, including supporting people suffering from anxiety.

Nature as a Distraction

Research also shows that nature can provide a healthy distraction from anxiety symptoms (Berman et al, 2012). Nature provides a beautiful and peaceful environment that can help individuals focus on something other than the cause of their anxiety, shifting their focus, and moving from negative thoughts to more positive feelings, which can be very beneficial in supporting wellbeing.

Nature-based Therapies

Nature-based therapies, such as Ecotherapy and wilderness therapy, effectively treat anxiety. Ecotherapy involves engaging with nature as a form of treatment, while wilderness therapy consists of spending extended time in nature as part of a therapeutic program. These therapies are effective in reducing anxiety symptoms and improving overall mental health.

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Take 5 Initiative

Various initiatives have been launched worldwide to address mental health issues. One such initiative is the Take 5 for mental health campaign, launched initially in the UK but has since gained global recognition.

It focuses on promoting mental health awareness and encouraging people to take a break and prioritise their wellbeing.

This initiative encourages adults and young people to take a break from their busy lives, work and the stress of life and focus on their mental health.

It emphasises the importance of self-care and encourages individuals to take five minutes daily to make time for themselves.

The initiative helps us focus on five simple steps to improve our mental health and wellbeing, and these can be enhanced by engaging with nature:

  1. Take notice – be mindful of your surroundings and triggers which cause stress or anxiety – everyone is different, so be aware of your thoughts, feelings and sensations. Having a trauma-informed practice approach can ensure that we are aware of not only our own triggers but those of others. Providing opportunities or spaces for a person or child to retreat and regulate their emotions can be helpful, like a sensory area for young children; or for adults and young people sometimes a walk outside or in a local park, even for half an hour, can help regulate emotions that are starting to spiral.
  2. Connect – Stay connected with others – Building and maintaining relationships with friends, colleagues, and family is essential. Through social support groups, we can reduce stress and promote mental wellbeing. Joining a sports group, a walking club, or taking up an outdoor activity that interests you will help build networks and support wellbeing.
  3. Be Active – The third step is being physically active. Regular exercise can help reduce stress, improve mood and boost self-esteem. This can be something simple like taking your dog for a walk every day or jogging in the park. I find early morning walks peaceful and relaxing, listening to the birds and breathing in the fresh air before the day's chaos kicks in.
  4. Keep Learning – The fourth step might be a little less in keeping with nature in the sense we have discussed above, but trying new things, exploring new exercises and learning all help to stimulate the brain and promote mental wellbeing. So, when you are considering a CPD course bear this in mind.
  5. Give – The final step is to give back to others. Sometimes we can become overwhelmed by our own emotions and stress levels and forget that others out there are feeling the same. Helping others can promote a sense of purpose, improve self-esteem, and enhance your wellbeing. Try organising or joining a support group, learn to listen to others, and if these can be nature-based, even better. Things like horticulture group sessions, mindfulness groups in nature, outdoor yoga sessions etc., can help support your wellbeing and offer opportunities for you to listen to and support others.

As we see, engaging with nature can positively impact mental health, including anxiety, and encouraging our children to explore outdoor activities, and sports will enhance wellbeing, and build resilience and self-regulation strategies.

Spending time in nature can help reduce stress levels, increase vitamin D production, promote physical activity, improve mindfulness, improve social connections, provide healthy distractions, and be part of nature-based therapies.

Whether it is a walk in the park, a hike in the woods, or a weekend camping trip, engaging with nature can be a powerful tool for improving mental health and wellbeing.

About the Author

Dr Marguerita Magennis, Course Coordinator Masters in Early Childhood Studies & Lead Lecturer BA Hons degree Early Childhood Studies at Portobello Institute. Read her blog, Dr M's Thoughts here.

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Free Webinar: Discovering the Potential of Digital Technologies and STEAM for Inclusive Special Needs Education and Early Years Development

Portobello Institute will hold a free educational early years webinar entitled “Discovering the Potential of Digital Technologies and STEAM for Inclusive Special Needs Education and Early Years Development” on May 17th 2023.

The webinar is free to attend, you can register here.

Further Reading:

Baldwin and Danese (2020) ‘Research, Practice, and Policy Implications of Adverse Childhood Events,’ JAMA paediatrics, 175 (8).

Berger, R., and Quinos, L. (2014) ‘Supervision for Trauma- Informed Practice,’ Traumatology 20 (4) 296.

Berman, M. G., Kross, E., Krpan, K. M., Askren, M. K., Burson, A., Deldin, P. J., Kaplan, S., Sherdell, L., Gotlib, I. H., & Jonides, J. (2012). Interacting with nature improves cognition and affect for individuals with depression. Journal of affective disorders, 140(3), 300-305.

Creswell, J. D. (2017). Mindfulness interventions. Annual review of psychology, 68, 491-516.

Grant, L., and Kinnman, G., (2020) ‘Developing emotional resilience and wellbeing: A practice guide for social workers,’ Community Informed Children.

Jordan, J. V., & Weber, M. (2008). Ecopsychology: A holistic approach to understanding the human-nature relationship. Journal of ecological anthropology, 12(1), 5-14.

Kerr, D.C., Zava, D. T., Piper, W.T., Satin, R. H., and Mearns, A. J. (2015) Associations between vitamin D levels and depressive symptoms in healthy young adult women. Psychiatry Research, 227 (1) 46-51.

Magennis, M. (2021) Breathing in Nature, Dr M’s thoughts, www.childhoodmentalhealth.com 



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