Nature Deficit Disorder
You’ve probably heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which is a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern. SAD is sometimes known as ‘winter depression’ because the symptoms are usually more apparent and more severe during the winter.
Symptoms of SAD can include:
a persistent low mood
loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
feelings of despair
guilt and worthlessness
feeling lethargic (lacking in energy)
sleepy during the day or sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
The exact cause of SAD isn't fully understood, but it's often linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter autumn and winter days. It’s thought that a lack of sunlight might stop a part of the brain called the hypothalamus working properly, which may affect the production of melatonin and serotonin, as well as affecting the body's internal clock (circadian rhythm).
Melatonin is a hormone that makes you feel sleepy and it may be overproduced in people with SAD. Serotonin is a hormone that affects your mood, appetite and sleep; lower levels are linked to feelings of depression. Lack of sunlight can contribute to lower levels and fewer hours of daylight during the winter may disrupt your body clock and can again reduce serotonin levels.
The main treatments for SAD include getting as much natural sunlight as possible, exercising regularly and managing your stress levels. Light box therapy, counselling, and medication may also be prescribed by doctors depending on the level of severity. However, lifestyle measures are so important as these are steps that we can all take to feel better and improve our wellbeing.
Now, I have little interest in gardening (as my neighbours will testify) and mostly just aspire to my sister-in-law’s horticultural skills on Instagram. But I recently noticed a tweet which mentioned that an upcoming episode of Gardeners’ World was focusing on the link between positive mental health and nature, so thought I’d give it a watch. Other than the usual bits about pruning your perennials, the sections on mental health and the current scientific research focus on spending time outside were really interesting and thought provoking.
The programme talked about ‘Nature Deficit Disorder.’ Although it's not a recognised medical condition, concerns about its effects on wellbeing are attracting widespread attention. According to Dr Ross Cameron of Sheffield University, “…it's a symptom of current lifestyle. We're so clued into modern technology and things, that we're less observant about the world around us and we're more likely to learn about wildlife ironically from a David Attenborough programme than maybe from a walk in the woods."
Richard Louv coined the phrase 'Nature Deficit Disorder' in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods. He argues that spending more time indoors can make us feel alienated from nature and perhaps more vulnerable to negative moods or reduced attention span. Looking into this further, the Natural Childhood Report (2012) by Stephen Moss discusses the compelling evidence that human beings have an innate need for nature: a concept known as ‘biophilia’. This refers to our primal urge to connect with the natural world, and although we lead very different lives compared with our prehistoric ancestors, this remains central to our lives today.
A recent National Trust survey revealed that 80% of the happiest people in the UK said that they have a strong connection with the natural world, compared with less than 40% of the unhappiest. Even short-term ‘doses’ of nature can make a marked impact on mental health – apparently as little as 5 minutes of ‘green exercise’ can improve mood and self-esteem by a significant margin.
So clear is the link between increased contact with nature and better mental health that in 2007 the charity MIND launched a campaign to incorporate nature into mainstream NHS treatments, under the banner ‘Ecotherapy: The green agenda for mental health’.
As Dr William Bird, GP and medical advisor to Natural England and the RSPB, puts it: ‘The outdoors is bursting with health benefits – it takes away stress, it increases physical activity, and it gets people meeting each other…’
Recent research for Natural England has shown that where people have good access to green space, they are 24% more likely to be physically active. In the longer term, continued regular contact with nature brings an increased level of satisfaction with life in general.
This is why we are so keen here at On Clear Days to share our passion for walks and hikes. Getting outside is good for the mind, body and soul and we definitely advocate it! If you’d like to know more about getting started, have a look through the site at exercises and walk routes, subscribe and follow us.
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