Discovering my own eco-psychology

Sitting outside my tutor’s office with a half-written essay in my hand and a pit feeling in my stomach wasn’t the best way to start Hilary term. Contemplating rustication or powering through a term of deadlines while finding it difficult to get out of bed in the morning was a tough decision. 

I wasn’t alone in my uncertainty. Nearly one-third of university students in the UK report symptoms of depression and anxiety. This is an ever-increasing number in high-intensity environments, with Oxford being obvious. There is, however, one essential resource that is accessible to everyone, free of charge, and surrounding us at all times: our natural world. 

Mathew White, an environmental psychologist at the University of Exeter, investigated the correlation between time spent in nature and our mental health. The study of 20,000 people found that those who spend a minimum of 120 minutes in our natural world “were substantially more likely to report good health and psychological wellbeing than those who don’t”. Clearly, we are interdependent with nature – and yet we neglect this so frequently.  

How are we dependent on our environment?

Eco-psychology is a field which emerged in the 1960s and focuses on this relationship between humans and the Earth. Some of the most recent findings outline a correlation between behaviour disorders and limited time outside: coined by Richard Louv in Last Child in the Woods, the term ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ (NDD) has become one of the most common behavioural disorders. In 2019, Louv referred to NDD as “a description of the human costs of alienation from nature” and went on to blame poor urban planning for the separation created between people and the natural world. 

In a paper published by Science Advances, 26 authors set out a framework formally recognising the impact of nature on mental health. They found an association between common types of nature experiences and increased well-being, that this association extends to reducing risk factors of mental illness, and that opportunities for some types of nature experience are decreasing.

Speaking with Rachel Busby, St. Anne’s Welfare Dean, gave me greater insight into this phenomenon. She discussed how “time outside, particularly in high-quality green spaces, promotes increased oxygen intake”, which in turn increases the release of endorphins and serotonin. These natural painkillers are vital for our day-to-day coping. Reducing the accessibility of these opportunities is not a temporary or trivial issue – it is clear that inaccessibility creates generational amnesia and what is known as the ‘extinction of experience’, which refers to the consistent lack of development in our attitudes and behaviour to conservation.

Beyond science, how does the environment contribute to mental health recovery?

I am a first-year law student with no history of mental health issues – until I started university. With intense deadlines, all-nighters, and imposter syndrome, I crumbled instantly. I woke up every day feeling like a failure at the institution I worked tirelessly to get into. While I am grateful to be in the process of recovery, it was an unprecedented struggle that I never anticipated I would face. 

One adverse effect of anxiety and depression medication was a persistent low mood during the first few weeks of starting medication. Getting out of bed and starting my day became one of the hardest things I ever had to do. However, one consistency in my recovery was visiting the Botanic Gardens and Arboretum. Whenever I felt a wave of anxiety or low mood, the Gardens gave me an incentive to get out of bed. I had a purpose for my day. It grounded me in what felt like a pool of missed opportunities. 

Rachel Busby also considers this sense of ‘groundedness’, relaying how being connected with nature gives us “time out of our heads and opportunities to just be present in the moment”. This was, again, an insight I internalised. It allows us to “gain a sense of a bigger picture, one of hope and possibility”. I came to realise that seeing growth in nature encourages growth within ourselves; hopelessness and discontent can develop into gratitude and motivation. If the environment around us can persevere, so can we. 

Why is this a pressing matter?

In 2021, around 85 percent of the UK was living in urban areas. We are in what is known as an ‘urban century’, where there are continual demographic and social shifts. This catalyses the move to urban individualism which comes with loneliness. While seemingly inconsequential, loneliness can increase the risk of death by 45 percent. Even in cities where you feel fulfilled and have meaningful social contact, having access to natural features is invaluable for feeling happy. However, there is hope! Urbanisation does not mean a permanent shift away from the natural world – it is possible to co-exist with our environment, despite feeling disconnected. 

There are a plethora of organisations around Oxford that aim to conserve local habitats – essentially, giving back to the ecosystems around us. Charities such as Wild Oxfordshire seek to create a more biodiverse Oxfordshire for the benefit of all. They do this through community ecology projects that utilise volunteers for habitat connectivity. These projects are beneficial for carbon storage and biodiversity. Wild Oxfordshire has managed over 400 hectares of habitat and delivered over 22,000 hours of support.

Such initiatives give us a well-needed nudge to live in harmony with our environment. Our interconnectedness is beautiful and beneficial for all. Just 120 minutes is all it takes to feel less anxious – try taking a stroll around the University Parks, Botanic Gardens, or any other green nook around Oxford. Nurturing your relationship with the world around you will inadvertently help you nurture your relationship with yourself — and during these stressful times, this is of utmost importance.