Humans evolved in nature, and many of us intuitively seek out natural spaces to unwind in when we feel stressed. Taking a stroll through a beautiful park, with big leafy trees, abundant flowers and the smell of cut grass, is a world away from the experience of walking through a shopping centre with all of the busy shop fronts, crowds and blaring music. One soothes our nervous system and leaves us feeling calmer and more relaxed, while the other can leave us feeling drained and frazzled.
Yet it can be difficult to find opportunities during the winter months to connect with nature. We arrive at the office as it’s getting light and leave as it’s getting dusky. Our weekday exercise routine may shift indoors to the gym or yoga studio, away from the outdoor spaces of the park, hills and beach… or it might come to a grinding halt as we hunker-down mode on those winter evenings, tucking ourselves up on the sofa with a blanket, wine and Netflix.
…And while there is a level of needing to embrace this seasonal rhythm of the year, the disconnection from nature can be detrimental to our energy and wellbeing.
There is a raft of evidence to support the benefits of nature on our mood and health.
One landmark study found that hospital patients whose window looked out over a tree, recovered faster and needed less pain medication than patients whose window looked out at a wall (Ulrich, R.S. 1984).
Other studies have shown that leafier neighbourhoods are correlated with lower stress levels (Roe, Thompson et at 2013), lower prescribing of antidepressant medication and slower cognitive decline in older adults (Jones 2020).
The positive effect of nature is so powerful, that we can get some benefits even with small doses. A short 5-10 minute walk through a green space has been shown to have a buffering effect on the stresses of being in an urban area (Jones 2020).
Even in a virtual reality experience, natural scenes have been shown to lead to lowered heart rate and reduced stress compared to urban scenes (Chan, Qui et al 2021).
So, with all that in mind, let’s look at ways to bring a bit of nature indoors, to boost our mind, mood and health.
5 simple ways to connect with nature at work
A pot plant on your desk
Having a living plant on your desk is a little injection of nature into your immediate surroundings and it can have a profound impact.
Plants improve air quality while we work in our crowded and air-conditioned office space. They absorb toxins and release oxygen, which helps to counteract the build-up of carbon dioxide that we humans breath out all day long.
In offices with more plants, people feel more energised, less stressed and more able to concentrate.
In terms of what plant to pick, consider how much natural light is available and how ‘green fingered’ your are. Zizi plants and rubber plants only need a little water once a week (and less in the winter) and can cope pretty well with limited natural light. Peace lilies and spider plants are also easy care and feature on NASA’s list of top 10 air purifying plants.
Pin up some images of natural spaces
These could be photos of beautiful natural spaces that you have visited and feel a personal connection to; a favourite destination from a holiday, or a place nearer to home that you enjoy relaxing in.
You could repurpose an old calendar or even just look online for an image of nature that inspires you… a tropical beach, underwater scene, snowcapped mountains, a luscious forest… whatever resonates with you.
Get one or two printed out and pinned up around your immediate workspace, or framed and stood on your desk where you can easily see it.
Find moments to pause through the day and gaze at this image, connecting with the calmness or inspiration in this scene. Take a couple of deep breaths; it only takes a few seconds. Then continue with you work, feeling that little bit better.
Screensavers of nature
Similar to above, get more micro-doses of images of nature by setting the screensaver on your computer, tablet and phone to a natural scene. As you open up your device, just pause for a second to connect with and appreciate the scene before moving on to the next task.
Gaze out of the window
During the day, take moments to look away from your screen and gaze out of a window. See what nature you can spot – distant hills, trees blowing it the wind, clouds in the sky. This will give you a moment of calm to reconnect with nature, as well as offering your eyes a much needed break from the screen. Avoid eye strain and boost your mood at the same time – double benefit!
Go for a short walk
Get out of the office during breaks and go for a walk. Ideally seek out somewhere with some natural space or greenery – a local park or a tree lined avenue will do. Go by yourself or with a buddy, just get outside!
Tune in to the nature around you - even in a relatively urban space there are likely to be trees, shrubs and flowers. Notice the feeling of the sun on your skin, the freshness of the air in your nostrils, or the wind moving your hair. Taking a few mindful minutes outside in natural light, will be calming for your nervous system and also give you a much-needed dose of vitamin D.
Even now, in midwinter, my short walk around the block from the office revealed leaves still on the trees from the last season, a few early daffodils popping up, winter flowering shrubs, birds singing, a bird nest, the branch structures and gnarled bark of trees revealed by the absence of leaves. There is lots of nature all around if we take a few minutes to just go outside and notice it.
So pick a couple of these ideas to start with and just give them a go! Notice the positive impact they can immediately have on your mood.
You may well have others compliment you on your spruced-up desk space or join you for your walks, and may feel inspired to do the same.
Your little actions can really add up and ripple outwards. How can you find a small way to start right now?
Lois Hill is an Occupational Therapist working for WorkSpace IQ with 11 years’ clinical experience and specialist in vocational rehabilitation and pain management. She is passionate about empowering clients with the means to maximise their function, health and wellbeing.
Chan, S., Qiu, L. et al (2021) Nature in virtual reality improves mood and reduces stress: evidence from young adults and senior citizens. Virtual Reality 2021 Nov 26:1-16.
Jones, L (2020) Loosing Eden: Why our minds need the wild. Allen Lane (Penguin).
Li, Q (2018) The art and science of forest bathing. Penguin Life (Penguin).
Roe, J.J.; Thompson, C.W.; Aspinall, P.A.; Brewer, M.J.; Duff, E.I.; Miller, D.; Mitchell, R.; Clow, A. Green Space and Stress: Evidence from Cortisol Measures in Deprived Urban Communities. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2013, 10, 4086-4103.
Ulrich, R.S. (1984) View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 4647, 420-1