How nature helps manage our emotions

The role of nature in the regulation of emotions is often overlooked despite evidence that people seek out nature for the regulation of emotions and evidence that restoration-based accounts do not explain all the well-being benefits derived from nature. My latest paper considers how nature helps manage our emotions for wellbeing and what it means for urban design. The paper was published recently in the journal Ecopsychology and the final version is available from the journal, or the pre-review version is available here for free. If you don’t fancy reading all 5000 words and the wider evidence to support the account of health and well-being benefits of nature through balancing emotions, this blog provides a brief introduction.

To help deliver programmes to improve well-being through nature there is a need to understand the mechanisms for the benefits. This allows various stakeholders to understand and promote the well-being benefits of nature and develop effective interventions such as green and social prescriptions. More widely, in the context of the crisis in biodiversity, it is important to provide narratives that show that nature matters for human well-being. To complement restorative theories and to aid the understanding and dissemination of nature’s role in the successful regulation of emotions required for well-being, the article provides an account of the health benefits humans derive from the natural world based on maintaining well-being through emotional balance.

It’s important to remember that emotions aren’t just feelings and by-products of life, they are fundamental features of human function. Features of our nervous system, heart and brain. As different emotions come and go, they shape and direct what we do. Regulating emotions is a very important and almost constant function of human life. It helps us respond to and deal with everyday demands in an appropriate way. Research shows that our ability to keep our emotions regulated is important for well-being.

The three-circle model of emotion regulation (see below) was developed by Gilbert (2005; 2014). As a model, it is a simplification of complex physiological processes, but it is useful to explain how the regulation of emotions are related to well-being. Given the context of wellbeing and the wider natural world, the model has been adapted with elements of nature used to represent both the three types of emotion (see drive, contentment and threat below) and the emotions nature may evoke. This is intended to provide an accessible model that helps explains how exposure to, and a connection with the natural world affects our emotional regulation and mood.

The three dimensions of our emotion regulation system are represented by 3 circles. Described below by a falcon for drive. A bird at rest for calm. And a wild boar for threat. Each day we can experience threat (the boar), drive (the falcon) and contentment (the bird). Each circle brings different feelings such as anxiety (the boar), joy (the falcon), and calm (the bird). Each circle also brings different motivations such as avoid (the boar), pursue (the falcon) and rest (the bird). The circle of arrows represents the interplay between the emotions. The arrows to the side summarise how the model can explain the positive physiological responses found from exposure to nature. Namely, measured responses to forest bathing, awe inspiring natural beauty, and viewing beautiful roses.

For wellbeing we need a balance between the three circles. Feeling good and functioning well comes through balancing threat, drive and contentment. Sometimes theses emotions become unbalanced. Perhaps if we’re constantly driven and pressured to do well at work or school, with little time for calm, rest and connection with friends. This can reduce our positive emotions and our threat response can become overactive. We can become anxious when simply receiving an email from the boss for example. Many of us know that time in nature after a difficult day is beneficial.

Through helping balance our moods, nature helps maintain positive emotions through greater resilience and enhanced immune function, therefore also providing a mechanism to explain the long-term benefits of nature exposure.  The model, and underpinning research, also highlight the interconnectedness between people and the rest of nature, fitting a wider narrative about human embeddedness in the ecosystem.

In an increasingly urban world with growing demands on health services, public health can be improved through relational thinking about people and nature. With policies on green prescriptions and improving urban green infrastructure for well-being, it is important to provide explanatory mechanisms that can inform policy and planning. Theories of well-being based purely on restoration can suggest short-term public health interventions and the provision of pockets of green space  to enable urban dwellers to receive a dose of nature. This can result in the continuation of a culture of occasional visits to special green spaces and traditional relationships with nature that have failed and seen a decline in the state of nature – rather than developing a deeper, more sustainable, relationship with nature.

Understanding how exposure to nature impacts our bodies and how this links through to mental well-being helps establish the types of activities in nature that are most beneficial. Exposure to nature is emotional – emotion is the constant companion of sensation with feelings, rather than thoughts coming first when we encounter it. Such knowledge and models can guide us, for example in the types of natural spaces we provide for people – moving from green spaces, to green places where a soothing contentment in nature can be found. Realising we can move beyond identifying nature to finding joy and calm – and balance in nature.

The paper suggests that there is a need for regular and sustained engagement with nature within biodiverse spaces to maintain well-being and resilience. This has wider implications, from the need for networks of green corridors to help reverse the decline in biodiversity to cultural aspects of green cities, such as moving beyond exposure to purposefully engaging with nature (e.g. urban equivalents of forest-bathing and symbolic celebrations of nature across the seasons).

Further still, this approach can inform well-being beyond cities, the importance of beautiful and awe inspiring landscapes, and their role in emotional regulation and wellness. As an established model, the three-circle based account provides a convincing, yet easily accessible narrative, to help influence decision makers and inform practitioners of the longer-term benefits of nature and human interconnectedness with nature. Given the crises in both mental well-being and planetary health, narratives that show nature matters are important as we seek to develop a new relationship between people and the rest of the natural world.

 

PS – There is also a story of our evolution to be told. The branches of the nervous system can be linked to different evolutionary responses. For example, visceral reptiles simply responding to threats and opportunities to the more evolved self-soothing and social behaviours of mammals. This provides a link between time in nature, physiological state, emotions, psychological experience and social behaviour.

 

Gilbert, P. ed. (2005). Compassion: Conceptualisations, research and use in psychotherapy. Routledge, Hove.

Gilbert, P. (2014). The origins and nature of compassion focused therapy. British Journal of Clinical Psychology53, 6-41.

About Miles

Applied psychologist researching our connection with nature and ways to improve it. Good for nature, good for you.
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