In this blog Ecotherapy Assistant Hannah Kenter will explore some of the latest research and debates in the field of Ecotherapy along with nature inspired tips for how you can put the research into practice. There will be a theme for each month and a weekly update on that theme. Hannah will also be joined by guest contributors including participants from our Ecotherapy at St Nicks programme. Check back regularly to find out more and you can also sign up the St Nicks Wellbeing in Nature newsletter for further Ecotherapy inspiration.
July: Nature is Restorative-Attention Restoration Theory
Ever walk around the city and feel distracted by the background traffic noise and the billboard advertisements firing messages at you, whilst trying to organise the thoughts in your head so that you can remember what it was you were going to the shop for? Unsurprisingly, in urban environments we can experience mental fatigue. Scientists say this is because we have to exert effort to overcome the effects of constant stimulation. If we work in an office we may be juggling emails, phone calls, meetings and social media, whilst also thinking about the chores we have at home or what we are going to do at the weekend. To focus on the task at hand we need to block out the other distractions and this causes depletion.
When we are in natural environments our cognitive functioning differs. In nature we tend to sense our surroundings more and appreciate the beauty around us, our mind can wander more freely. We can feel replenished and restored. Scientists call this experience in natural surroundings ‘indirect attention’ or ‘soft fascination’ and it’s part of a nature theory called Attention Restoration Theory (Kaplan 1989 and 1995). We’ll be learning more about Kaplan’s theory of restoration in future weeks. For now, if you are able to be out in nature, see if you can sense any changes to your mindset, even looking out of a window at a tree or plants can help your mind to relax.
We can experience ‘soft fascination’ not only when we are out in nature but also when we look out of the window at trees or at the sky. The evidence about the restorative effects from looking at trees from a window is so convincing that the NHS support growing forests for health. Having a view of trees from a hospital window is known to speed up recovery from a number of conditions. If you cannot see any greenspace from your window at home, even looking at flowers in a window box or at indoor plants can evoke a sense of relaxation and connection.
According to Kaplan’s theory of restoration, for attention to be restored our expectations of a trip outdoors also need to be somewhat met. I took a trip to Bempton Cliffs RSPB Reserve at the weekend and it was amazing to unexpectedly arrive there at 9pm as the sun was setting and get up close to puffins, gannets and kittiwakes, I felt so relaxed and happy!
The next day I was pretty stressed out as I attempted to walk my young son around the reserve. He was tired and something else was needed so instead we took a picnic by the beach and the fresh air, smell of sea salt and playing in the waves was very restoring for all of us. Kaplan’s theory explains why some nature trips are restoring and others fall flat. Being away from our usual day to day routine is an important factor for restoration. So next time you can be out in nature, take a moment to consider what you most need from your venture, you’ll be all the more restored for it.
Frazzled brain. Late lunch. Emails coming in faster than replies go out. For every to-do list item ticked off, another two are added and suddenly it’s 3pm and lunch hasn’t been had. With a brain too full to think all that’s left is to rely on routine.
Part of that routine? A garden walk. Every day before lunch. Every night before tea. The same routine, same order, same walk each time. The walk always pauses at the pond, halfway down the garden; a portal to another world. A world where seed shrimp zoom, mosquito larvae wiggle, globular springtails do backstroke, drone fly larvae submarine, and semaphore flies flirt with their wings. Observing their world through a macro lens is a mind-clearer, a muscle-relaxer, a breath-taker. It’s a privilege.
Every day this circle of magic changes as creatures come, go, morph and muddle their way along. Its power is phenomenal. Reaching up, it brings the frazzle down, smooths out the stress, calms the limbs that won’t stop shaking, slows the breathing, empties the mind, and silences the worried ‘what ifs’.
The restorative power of this crack in the landscape is unrivalled by anything else. It succeeds where years of interventions have failed.
This pond was built to restore nature, but it turns out that nature is really rather good at restoring us.