Nature is restorative: Attention restoration theory

Ever walk around a city and feel distracted by the background traffic noise and the billboard advertisements firing messages at you, whilst trying to organise the thoughts in your head so that you can remember what it was you were going to the shop for? Unsurprisingly, in urban environments we can experience mental fatigue. Scientists say this is because we have to exert effort to overcome the effects of constant stimulation. If we work in an office we may be juggling emails, phone calls, meetings and social media, whilst also thinking about the chores we have at home or what we are going to do at the weekend. To focus on the task at hand we need to block out the other distractions and this can cause depletion.

When we are in natural environments our cognitive functioning differs. In nature we tend to sense our surroundings more and appreciate the beauty around us, our mind can wander more freely. We can feel replenished and restored. Scientists call this experience in natural surroundings ‘indirect attention’ or ‘soft fascination’ and it’s part of a nature theory called Attention Restoration Theory (Kaplan 1989 and 1995). If you are able to be out in nature, see if you can sense any changes to your mindset, even looking out of a window at a tree or plants can help your mind to relax. Do you feel stressed and tired or relaxed and softer?

We can experience ‘soft fascination’ not only when we are out in nature but also when we look out of the window at trees or at the sky. The evidence about the restorative effects from looking at trees from a window is so convincing that the NHS support growing forests for health. Having a view of trees from a hospital window is known to speed up recovery from a number of conditions. If you cannot see any greenspace from your window at home, even looking at flowers in a window box or at indoor plants can evoke a sense of relaxation and connection.

According to Kaplan’s theory of restoration, for attention to be restored our expectations of a trip outdoors also need to be somewhat met. I took recently took a trip to Bempton Cliffs RSPB Reserve  at the weekend and it was amazing to unexpectedly arrive there at 9pm as the sun was setting and get up close to puffins, gannets and kittiwakes, I felt so relaxed and happy!

The next day I was pretty stressed out as I attempted to walk my young son around the reserve. He was tired and something else was needed so instead we took a picnic by the beach and the fresh air, smell of sea salt and playing in the waves was very restoring for all of us. Kaplan’s theory explains why some nature trips are restoring and others fall flat. Being away from our usual day to day routine is an important factor for restoration. So next time you can be out in nature, take a moment to consider what you most need from your venture, you’ll be all the more restored for it.

This blog was originally written in July 2020 when I worked as an Ecotherapy Assistant at St Nicks urban nature reserve in York. It was part of a series exploring some of the latest research and debates in the field of Ecotherapy along with nature inspired tips for how to put the research into practice


Birdsong during lockdown

I’ve been contemplating some of the ways nature on our doorstep can provide a wellbeing boost. I love hearing bird song at this time of year, more so due to the lockdown. The tree branches are somewhat bare and if I stay still I’ve a good chance of getting up close to a musical feathered friend. Urban nature can be surprising and beautiful. I don’t think I will ever tire of seeing a long-tailed tit or a song thrush.

Researchers have recently found that birdsong can transform our mental health. It’s all about the type of song we listen to and partly to do with our associations with the sounds. It won’t surprise you that melodic and pleasant sounds scored highly in the study whilst squawks and rough sounds were less well received. Think blackbird vs magpie. The melodic sounds were found to be restorative and relaxing.

Now consider associations. A friend once told me off for saying that a robin’s song was melancholic. I realised that hearing a robin reminded me of a place that I was missing. Now I love to hear a robin and they are firmly back in my top five musical heroes. If you think of an owl or a crow what do you associate with them?

Not only can the sounds of bird song be restorative, bird biodiversity can also increase happiness levels. Researchers say that birds are one of the best indicators for biological diversity such as plants and other wildlife. Experiencing a variety of birds in daily life was found to bring greater joy. Birdlife; good indicator for planetary health and for human health!

So next time you hear bird song take a moment to notice how it makes you feel, notice which bird sounds bring you joy. During the tougher days of lock-down we can seek out the bird sounds that we love or go to places where we know we will be around several kinds of birds, this can give us a natural mood boost.

Now that we have some freedoms back, it’s great to go in and listen to some bird song. However, as some of you are shielding or isolation, listening to a recording might be a helpful way to connect with nature and with us from your home.

This blog was originally written by Hannah Kenter in February 2021 for The Friends of Rowntree Park website.

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Coping with eco-anxiety

If you’ve been feeling unsettled about environmental issues of late there are some practical tips that can help. Friends of the Earth nailed how anxious we can get in their ‘We’ve all been there’ video, watch until the end for a smile. We don’t have to downplay the enormity of the environmental crisis to find ways to cope and actually, acknowledging the situation and that our anxiety is a rational response can reassure us that we are not the problem, lasting systemic change is what is needed. Eco-anxiety is a term used to describe the anxieties that we may have about climate change or other ecological damage. It’s important to remember that eco-anxiety is a rational response to a disturbing state of affairs. As Sarah Niblock of the UK Council for Psychotherapy says“Eco-anxiety is a term that’s used a lot, but it’s misguided if it’s not used in the right way,”… “This is not an illness or disorder, it’s a perfectly normal and healthy reaction.”. So we know we’re human and rational to feel this way, but how can we avoid feeling overwhelmed without minimising the state of our ecology?

Remember that you are not alone, says Psychotherapist and Lecturer Carole Hickman. Finding a community of like-minded people can help us to cope. We can share concerns and help to find collective solutions. How often do I hear volunteers and visitors at St Nicks say that they love the sense of community here? Discussions about reducing carbon foot printsminimising waste or love for nature are the backdrop to our groups and sessions. These type of conversations reassure us that we are not alone in our concerns and collective solutions start with a conversation. Where we can’t meet in person social mediabecomes our friend.

Feeling capable of doing something – or agency –  is another way to cope, says Penny Sarcher from New Scientist. This might be developing new habits such as cycling instead of driving, buying less, going vegan or taking a staycation holiday. All of these are well within our reach and can inspire others to make changes in their lives. Being involved in an environmental group can bring wider benefits because the impacts are further reaching. Joining a Climate Group or environmental NGO can help us personally because we feel connected with others and it’s practical because we’re helping to find wider solutions. Environmental groups inspire climate protests, direct action and environmental campaigns which can change policies and laws.

Doing something positive like nurturing green spaces can help us to cope

Protecting and nurturing local green spaces is another practical way we can ‘do something’. Planting trees, growing wildflowers, helping with wildlife surveys, all of these make a practical contribution as well as the personal wellbeing benefits of connecting with nature.

It’s not easy, but you could say it’s would be strange if we didn’t feel unsettled by environmental concerns. There’s a wealth of research and practices that tells us that it is by feeling our anxiety, fear, despair or overwhelm that transformation into authentic positive action for change can be inspired – more about that another time! For now, find some time this month to reach out to others or do something practical that can make a difference.

This blog was originally written when I worked as an Ecotherapy Assistant at St Nicks urban nature reserve in York. It was part of a series exploring some of the latest research and debates in the field of Ecotherapy along with nature inspired tips for how to put the research into practice