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Opinion

How green space can help ease the pandemic’s impact on our mental health

The research into how time spent in green spaces can improve our mental health is unveiling the presence of pathways in our brains that respond to the natural world, writes Emma Mitchell

For an entire year, our mental responses to Covid-related news headlines closely matched responses to dangers encountered when humans were evolving.

A year ago, as Covid-19 expanded its horizons exponentially across the world, the walls of individual human lives closed in. The space in which millions of us were living shank dramatically and we were forced to adjust to more bounded, repetitive ways of living. Most human contact moved online, hugs and handshakes from friends became fond memories and with this isolation, aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus, came a second threat to human health.

Our brain is wired to respond quickly and efficiently when we sense danger: the hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released, which increase our heart rate, blood pressure, mobilise simple sugars into the bloodstream and increase mental alertness so that we can make quick decisions and run away from the threat fast should we need to.

These pathways were laid down during human evolution and served us well. If another group of hunter-gatherers came to burgle our food stash we could use the physical and neurological reactions to our stress hormones to see them off. If a rhino became narky and ran at us we could leg it or shin quickly up a tree. A sensitive and active fight or flight response improved our chances of survival.

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The coronavirus poses as real a threat to the life of each human as a large angry predator or a light-fingered neolithic neighbour. For an entire year, our mental responses to the Covid-related news headlines will have closely matched responses to dangers encountered when humans were evolving.

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The result is the same whether it’s an actual or a viral wolf at the door. Anxiety levels soared, many experienced bereavement or loss of income and this, along with daily Covid-related news, kept our fight or flight responses firing, over and over and over. A year later it’s still happening.

At the same time as our responses to danger were being triggered almost constantly, lockdown separated all households from their friends and family. Social and physical contact with friends causes the release of oxytocin, aka the love hormone, and dopamine, a neurotransmitter that triggers feelings of elation and motivation.

In turn, time spent with friends or even colleagues dials down cortisol, one of the hormones produced when we feel under threat. Loneliness, on the other hand, has been shown to be associated with high levels of cortisol, anxiety, depression and even increased rates of suicide.

The combination of the ever-present threat of coronavirus, grief, long-term effects on income and the lack of mental lift and solace from social contact has created a potentially severe and lasting effect on the world’s mental health.

I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety since 1992. In 2009, shortly after a traumatic event had blown my family apart, I began to notice that when I walked our dog more often in the wood behind our house my anxiety and sadness were alleviated. I have a scientific background so began to read about why this might be.

The research into how time spent in green spaces can improve our mental health is unveiling the presence of pathways in our brains and endocrine systems that respond to the natural world.

In some cases our nerve cells alter their activity within just 10 or 15 minutes of being in a green place.

It’s likely that these neuronal pathways evolved to give our ancestors positive mental rewards when they spent time in woodland or savannah: places that were essentially their supermarkets, builder’s merchants and pharmacies.

A feeling of lifted mood and lowered stress levels as they walked or ran through the places where food could be found would have drawn them back regularly, increasing their chances of finding the resources they needed and surviving for another season.

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Our brains and bodies still respond positively to the same individual elements of nature our ancestors’ brains became sensitised to. Plant oils (also called phytoncides) released by trees and plants trigger a cascade of physiological responses including a decrease in blood pressure and pulse rate and a decrease in the cortisol. If we spent time next to water such as a pond, river or the sea, there are similar effects.

Being near water is like a sensory break – a holiday for our minds, and from a historical point of view it would have offered some serious survival benefits in the form of fish, shellfish and hydration.

We no longer need to forage every day for food in woodland or on grassland in order to survive but we can harness the effects of the nature-responsive ancient neurological and hormonal pathways to improve our mental health with daily walks.

During the pandemic many have spent more time in gardens, parks and wild places and been drawn more readily to rivers or ponds for relaxation. It may be that this was instinctive: when the world and our lives are under threat perhaps deep down we’re aware of the very real soothing and uplifting effects of a woodland path or a hedgerow in a park.

As lockdown begins to ease, the scope of our lives is expanding again. But a lasting legacy of coronavirus will be its long-term effect on our mental health. There has been a sharp increase in the number of people requiring support from NHS mental health services in the last 12 months. Anxiety levels are unlikely to drop immediately, even if the vaccination programme is completed smoothly.

New variants of coronavirus have evolved, the effectiveness of the vaccine against these new strains is unknown. This pandemic has been a trauma for our entire species and at this stage it’s impossible to measure the extent of its damaging legacy on our collective minds.

But increasing the time we spend in the natural world really can help ease the troubled memories, grief and loss with which we are left, and help us face what lies ahead.

Emma Mitchell is a writer and naturalist. Her book The Wild Remedy is out now (Michael O’Mara, £14.99). 

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