Spring is here and the natural world is coming to life around us.

In East Anglia we are lucky enough to be surrounded by a beautiful landscape rich in wildlife, from the coastline to ancient woodlands, and there is no better time to get out and connect with nature.

But it is also possible to do this while remaining in our urban areas – and either way, the benefits to your mental health can be significant.  

Recent research by the University of Derby’s Nature Connectedness Research Group makes clear how the natural world can boost our wellbeing.

So much of poor mental health stems from feeling disconnected. Disconnection from other people is a major factor, but so is disconnection from nature.

They note that compared with similar countries, people in the UK visit nature less – we rank 16th out of 18 for level of nature connection in a survey of high-income countries around the world.

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Consciously living our lives as part of the natural world can make us feel happier, it turns out, as well as instilling environmentally friendly behaviour.  

According to the university: “Research shows that the closer we get to nature, the happier we are, the more worthwhile life seems, and the more we are willing to take action to help our wildlife and the environment.”

Their studies show that in the UK “only a minority of people take the time to watch birds, bees, butterflies or other wildlife, smell wildflowers, listen to bird songs, pay attention to clouds or the moon and stars, and draw or take photos of nature”.

They explain that nature connection is about “moments, not minutes”, i.e. that the degree of emotional engagement matters more than the duration of an activity. 

These moments can involve as little as planting and nurturing seeds in a pot on your windowsill, or caring for the wildlife in your garden, if you have one.

Norfolk and Waveney Mind’s Nature Connect scheme operates on principles based on the university’s research, and shows participants that nature is within everyone’s reach.

It combines activities such as forest bathing, mindful walking, sowing and growing groups, conservation and ecotherapy-based creative workshops.

All activities are devised with reference to the university’s ‘Five Pathways to Nature Connectedness’:

Senses: actively engaging with nature through the senses, e.g. smelling flowers. 

Beauty: finding beauty in the natural world and exploring it through creative arts. 

Emotion: noticing and reflecting on the positive emotions nature can inspire. 

Meaning:  Exploring how nature’s cycles bring meaning and order to our lives. 

Compassion: looking after nature as you would look after yourself. 

Applying these principles can quickly make us more connected to and invested in our world.

As well as helping if our mental health takes a dip, regularly connecting with nature can have a preventative effect when we’re feeling well.

Nature Connect support worker Lucy Allen says: “We work with people who feel well as well as those who are struggling and I’ve seen repeatedly how beneficial connecting with nature can be. There are all sorts of well-documented physiological benefits to being outside anyway, so I would encourage everyone to make the most of the spring and get out there!”

Lucy’s three tips for everyday nature connection are: 

*“Remove the expectations that you have to achieve something and just allow yourself time to be in or with nature.  

*“Just get outside, whether that’s putting your head out of the window, standing by the back door, walking in a local park or even just around the nearby streets. 

*“Take notice: tune in to one or all of your senses to slow down and really explore what’s around you. What might you hear? What’s different to if you had just walked quickly with your head down?” 

A study compiled this year showed that wellbeing improved for 94 per cent of Nature Connect participants, greatly boosting their confidence and ability to cope with challenges. Whether or not you consider yourself to have poor mental health at present, taking the opportunities for nature connection presented by spring is sure to improve your wellbeing.  

*For resources and information about Norfolk and Waveney Mind’s services including Nature Connect, visit norfolkandwaveneymind.org.uk or call 03003305488. For urgent mental health support, call NHS 111 option 2.

*To find out more about nature connectedness, try this free course run by the University of Derby: https://www.derby.ac.uk/short-courses-cpd/online/free-courses/nature-connectedness-relationship-with-nature/