Regular nature viewing improves mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Researchers say green places, even small or far away, are very effective in reducing stress and anxiety for city dwellers during this pandemic time when urged to stay home.

In the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic, it can sometimes be difficult to take advantage of the large green spaces available in the event of confinement, when time spent outdoors is limited. The good news, however, is that a recent scientific study claims that only the nature around the home can help alleviate some of the negative mental health effects associated with the pandemic and the steps taken to deal with it.

For this study published in Ecological Applications, the researchers surveyed 3,000 adults in Tokyo, one of the largest cities in the world. This process aimed to quantify the link between five mental health outcomes (depression, life satisfaction, subjective happiness, self-esteem, and loneliness) and two types of experiences with nature: an "immediate" experience, that is, being physically present in a green space and a less "immediate" experience that consists of seeing nature through the windows of the home. Recent studies have already shown that this habit is associated with good results in terms of mental health, including stress reduction.

"Reduce the negative impacts of a stressful event"

Finally, the researchers took into account several sociodemographic and lifestyle factors that could have an impact on mental health, such as the presence of a pet and the number of children in the household, annual household income and type of housing. They were also asked to provide the zip code for their area so they could assess the vegetation around their current residence. Although the frequency of use of green spaces varied among the participants, most of them had not been in a green space during the month of May, but about 81% said that their house gave a green view.

The results showed that a more frequent use of green spaces as well as the existence of windows that overlook the green areas of the house were associated with higher levels of self-esteem, life satisfaction and subjective happiness, as well as decreased levels of depression and loneliness. "This suggests that nearby nature can act as a buffer to reduce the negative impacts of a very stressful event on humans," says lead study author Professor Masashi Soga. "The protection of natural environments in urban areas is important for the conservation of biodiversity, but also for the protection of human health."

The researchers point out that the advantage of a "less immediate" experience of nature, that of observing it through the windows of the house, is that most people can have these types of experiences every day. While the use of green spaces is likely to encourage people to exercise regularly, it is a practice that in turn helps improve mental health. "Urban nature can be used as a solution to improve public health. This is especially relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic, when people experience increased stress levels and are confined to their homes," they add.

The next step of the study will be to better determine the mechanisms behind the relationship between close-to-home nature and improved mental health. Researchers hypothesize that nature close to home affects a persons mental health in ways other than the naked eye from the window. For example, trees promote the presence of birds in the house, which increases the frequency of hearing their songs. More generally, more research is also needed regarding urban greening policies to "determine how nature-based interventions can be designed to improve the health and well-being of urban populations," they conclude.

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