Recent studies conducted by the College of Environment, University of Washington, and University of Exeter Medical School confirm that green spaces deliver significant benefits to our mental health. According to research conducted in Britain, people who live in urban areas with greater amounts of green space are happier: they show less mental distress and significantly higher well-being and life satisfaction.
The effects of greenery
So how does the greenery work on our brain? It seems that we are naturally tuned to respond positively to green outdoor environments. Research shows that natural scenes evoke positive emotions, facilitate cognitive mental processes such as creative thinking and memorizing and help overcome mental fatigue for people who are in good mental health. What is more, the experience of nature can actually help in recovery from both short-term and chronic mental illness. It is a knowledge lost and found: the first hospitals in Europe, which were infirmaries in monastic communities, considered a garden an essential part of the environment and emphasized its role in the healing process.
Living in a busy urban environment may be exhausting for the brain, even if we were born in the city and have gotten used to its hubbub. Constantly navigating the outdoor environment, monitoring traffic and pedestrian flow and all the while focusing on getting somewhere and the means to get there all put a huge strain on the brain and, if maintained over a long time, leads to stress. According to the University of Washington research, even a few minutes in a crowded city setting can cause the brain to suffer memory loss and reduce self-control. But even short breaks or glimpses of greenery can provide respite for the brain allowing it to function better. Those working in offices which have a window or at least indoor plants take significantly less sick leave and college students living on green campuses find it easier to concentrate on their studies.
Green spaces, or even the visual experience of greenery, act as a holiday for the brain and renew its ability to concentrate because, according to Attention Restoration Theory (ART), they possess the four features characteristic of a restorative environment: green spaces bring about the sense of being away from the stressful situation, either physically or perceptually; they have scope and coherence that allows one to remain engaged; they are fascinating in a way that holds attention involuntarily and effortlessly and they are compatible with natural needs and desires. Some psychologists go even as far as claiming that our minds are naturally biophilic – that we have an inherent inclination to connect with green nature and that lack of that contact can negatively affect our mental health.
Green and mental health
According to biophilia theory enthusiasts, the occurrence of such health problems as Attention Deficit Disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, cardiovascular disease, depression, and fatigue syndrome are all connected to unhealthy and unnatural living environments and lack of outdoor play. Dealing with stress is a big problem for a modern urban city dweller and contact with nature is key in reducing the negative effects of stress. There is not yet enough research done for outside walks to be prescribed instead of anti-depressants, but there is evidence that visual and sensual contact with greenery, also known as ecotherapy, has a soothing effect and can actually help in overcoming mental disorders plaguing the population of the so-called developed world.
Over 2 million children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), a condition that negatively affects their social, cognitive, and psychological growth. And according to studies, children affected by ADD who get ‘green time’ (playtime in grassy outdoor spaces) experience significant relief from the symptoms of the disorder. But outside play is not only important for children with neurodivergent issues, it is an important element of childhood development and should be incorporated into every child’s daily schedule.
Elderly people suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease can benefit greatly from green outdoor spaces and it has been found that the syndromes of dementia can be reduced by some 20% by supportive green environments.
Anti-depressants are the most commonly prescribed medicines in the UK, and in some countries they have been given to children as young as two years old. But some people don’t need to depend on drugs to keep their mood up. It’s been known for a long time that contact with greenery and sunlight can ease depression, especially seasonal affective disorder (SAD). A University of Essex study found that a walk in the country reduces depression in 71% of participants. Even as little as five minutes in a natural setting, whether walking in a park or gardening in the backyard, could significantly improve mood, self-esteem, and motivation.
Not all of us are fortunate enough to have a big garden or live next to a lovely park, but we should try to get at least a bit of green time every day. It could be a walk in the neighborhood or a trip to a playground and what is important more than the quantity is the frequency of these outings. Appreciating nature, the plants, the wildlife and the changing seasons is a great way to keep our minds healthy and just remembering that there are signs for us in all of creation is a great reminder of Allah’s (SWT) mercy and power. And combining dhikr with outdoor exercise is a great way to nurture our souls and our minds for happier, greener lives.
Written by Klaudia Khan, originally posted on sistersmagazine.com. Modified for Muslimi.com