It’s no secret that more and more people are beginning to appreciate nature and turn to gardening as a way to cope during the coronavirus pandemic, but latest findings suggest nature can do so much more.
Experts claim connecting with nature and green spaces can help us to cope with grief or act as an effective coping strategy for those struggling with mental health conditions brought on or exacerbated as a result of the pandemic and that the cycles of nature can even provide hope in this challenging time.
Google Trends shows a doubling of worldwide online searches for compost and seeds compared with a year ago. Meanwhile, garden retailers have seen a huge surge in online horticultural sales during lockdown, leaving some suppliers struggling to cope with demand.
Professor Anna Jorgensen, who researches how people interact with nature at the University of Sheffield, has noticed for herself that more people have been connecting with nature during lockdown.
She believes the reciprocal relationship between people and nature could be driving this surge.
‘There’s a real desire to reconnect with living and growing things. When you are looking after something and it grows, it then looks after you,’ she explains.
At Anna’s house, she oversees the garden and views it as her ‘domain.’
‘There’s something about gardens [providing a sense of control] which is terribly important at a time when we are absolutely not in control and the whole world feels like it’s [spinning] out of control,’ she adds.
Anna claims witnessing the recurrent rhythms and rebirth of nature, in which plants and animals survive despite the harshness of winter, can also offer us hope and help us cope with the tragedies in our lives, such as loss during the coronavirus pandemic.
‘There’s a great book called Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl,’ she says, ‘it’s about the impact [of the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant in 1986] on the city and the area around it. Because people were excluded from that area, there was a vast and surprising burgeoning of nature, including wild animals, plants, vegetation. Therefore, even after a nuclear disaster, nature seemingly still has this ability to survive. I think it’s that survival against the odds which can be quite hopeful.’
She adds: ‘If you’re in a situation of bereavement, perhaps having to deal with very troubling and difficult thoughts, [nature can provide] an alternative space where people are not demanding your attention or the TV isn’t on or you’re not trying to check your phone. You can just sit and become completely absorbed in rain drops on a plant or hearing birds sing or watching clouds passing overhead or listening to the wind in the trees; it’s that moment of switching off and being present which is really refreshing. It’s like a breath of fresh air that enables you to recharge your batteries and return to that difficult, troubling, problematic, painful situation with a bit more energy, hope, tranquility and calm to face those challenges more positively.’
The sense of achievement that gardening can provide may also aid people with managing mental health issues, explains Anna.
‘Sewing a seed or taking a cutting or just planting a plant and seeing it grow [can create a] reward that is so special. [You are] able to achieve something and see a positive outcome.’
You also need to understand that being in the garden can’t cure a mental health condition, but it can be part of a really effective coping strategy, she says.
‘It can be an important part of our daily self-regulation and flourishing even with a mental health condition.’
The reason nature has such a positive effect on our wellbeing stems from its ability to distract us from our worries – something which experts call the ‘soft fascination’ of nature.
‘If you’re trying to read the instructions on a washing machine, you have to really pay attention and concentrate,’ explains Anna, ‘whereas soft fascination is when something interests you and you just want to pay attention to it effortlessly without having to use mental energy to focus on it.
‘[Soft fascination] switches off the part of your brain that has to make an effort, but it also switches off rumination and the troublesome parts of your brain.’
However, Anna claims we have to invest in the planning, building and design of our cities to include opportunities for people to connect with nature in order to maximise these benefits for people now and beyond the coronavirus crisis.
‘Having access to good quality green space is a basic human right.’
Alongside her role as a researcher, Anna is the head of the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Sheffield. She has been researching how people experience, interact with, understand and represent nature for approximately 10 years and has a specialist interest in the relationship between urban environments and people’s health and wellbeing. She has published a number of studies based on her research.