Dr Bhullar, Associate Professor of Psychology (Faculty of Medicine and Health, UNE) points to an excellent body of research, including correlative, longitudinal effects and experimental studies that have examined our contact with nature (or eco-connection) and our psychological health and wellbeing.
Bhullar poses the question,
Scientists are required to provide evidence through tests using a scientific approach. Bhullar cites two theoretical frameworks or theories that help us understand the connection between Nature and our mental health and wellbeing.
This theory specifies that just being in Nature restores our attention.
There's something in our Ancestral history where the natural patterns, green colours... soothe us and make us calm. This is because the attention we place on those patterns and colours is effortless and there's a sense of fascination with them.
This sense of 'restorativeness' gives us our sense of wellbeing.
In 1991, researcher R. Ulrich developed SRT based on numerous studies explaining how Nature reduces our physiological arousal or physiological levels of stress and the impact our aversive emotions have on us. Nature acts as a buffer.
Looking at scenery containing natural elements like greenery or water creates positive emotions and feelings like interest, pleasure and calm, and has a restorative effect, easing our state of alert following a stressful situation. Our response is then improved rapidly and spontaneously.
Dr Bhullar conducted experiments in the laboratory with subjects exposed to virtual contact with Nature. The data showed that even with virtual immersion in Nature, rather than actual Nature, the positive effects at a smaller degree still remain.
This has implications for and opens up a whole world of virtual connection with Nature through meditation, scent, audio and visual connections to Nature where it is not convenient or accessible to be in Nature every day, especially in cities, hospitals, schools, workplaces, quarantine centres or detention and penal institutions.
A virtual environment can help us maintain contact with Nature.
Frank Lloyd Wright
The positive effects of both virtual and actual experiences of Nature are evident. The strongest effect is the psychological benefit and outcomes from the actual experience of being there and spending time in Nature.
Bhullar confirmed that if we don't have access to the actual physical experience of Nature, the virtual environment has positive effects although to a lesser degree than the real experience.
Behavioural scientists and psychology academics like Bhullar are now teaming up with ecologists in inter-disciplinary research because there are not only environmental and economic benefits to retaining bio-diversity and ecological systems, they also have proven social and human health benefits.
Health and fitness practises such as yoga also offer extra benefits when practised outdoors in parks and natural environments. Yoga practises like slowing down, becoming more aware of yourself, nature and the sounds around you have great health benefits.
Aside from providing a beautiful backdrop, recent studies show that people exercising outdoors exercised more frequently and for a longer period of time than those exercising indoors.
In 2019, a meta-analysis was undertaken, looking at all the existing studies conducted specifically into Nature-based mindfulness interventions.
Evidence-based clinical studies have proven that 'mindfulness' can be an effective intervention especially when combined with actual Nature-based experiences.
Empirical studies conducted on people in hospitals, prisons, residential communities, offices and even schools demonstrated the beneficial effect of visual exposure to nature in the very short term on reducing blood pressure, heart rate, cortisol levels, sweating of the hands, muscle tension, etc., which are all markers of an improvement in our parasympathetic nervous system activity.
Positive psychological effects on mood, anxiety levels and feelings of comfort and relaxation were also measured and observed.
The negative impacts of Climate Change can have a negative impact on both our mental and physical health. For instance, the 2019-2020 bushfires in Australia disrupted our connection to Nature.
The effects of smoke and particulate inhalation from bushfire smoke, often in communities hundreds of kilometres away from the fires, contributed to serious physical health problems apart from the dangers of the flames themselves at the sites of bushfires.
Air Pollution - Beyond the haze
The loss of human life, property, farm stock, domestic animals and native wildlife caused by the bushfires, and the consequent lack of access to Nature, contributed to serious mental health issues, creating what Bhullar calls a 'Climate Anxiety' or 'Eco-Anxiety'.
However, Bhullar suggests that an emotion like anxiety is not always a bad thing because it is a 'gatekeeper' or 'gateway' emotion prompting us to act:
The Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia is home to over 600,000 residents. It's a highly popular domestic and international tourist destination with its world-renowned Pacific Ocean surf beaches.
Other attractions include the Gold Coast's year-round warm, sub-tropical climate, its theme parks, bars and nightlife, and excellent surfing, boating, sailing, paddling, fishing and diving locations.
The nearby Gold Coast Hinterland offers Nature walks in abundance at the World Heritage-listed Springbrook National Park (Gondwana Rainforests of Australia - World Heritage Area) where ancient 2000 year-old trees and ferns are still living deep in the park's rainforests.
However, within walking and cycling distance of the most densely populated Gold Coast suburbs of Main Beach and Surfers Paradise, is the Nerang River estuary, known as The Broadwater and The Spit, that have formed naturally through the interaction between the river and the ocean during floods and storm swells over the centuries.
Gold Coast community groups have fought for over 50 years to save The Spit and Broadwater from overdevelopment, major commercialisation and socially and environmentally destructive casino and cruise ship terminal proposals.
As a consequence, the gateway emotion, referred to above by Dr Bhullar as "Eco-anxiety", has resulted in Community action to save and enhance The Spit and Broadwater's parks, islands, beaches, foreshores and waterways as public open space.
For instance, the local community group, Save Our Spit Alliance, has used protest campaigns, public rallies, political pressure and the publishing of technical reports and environmental research as strategies over the past 20 years to protect the Natural assets of The Spit and Broadwater.
Since 2000, a program of community planting of indigenous coastal trees and vegetation on The Spit's dunes (the last remaining dune system on the Gold Coast's mainland that has not been built on for residential or commercial purposes) has stabilised the dunes and created littoral woodlands and rainforests in Federation Walk Coastal Reserve (FWCR).
FWCR now provides habitat and roosting, foraging and nesting sites for a diverse range of wildlife species including protected, threatened and endangered migratory shore birds, turtles and the majestic White-bellied Sea-Eagle. The Nature-based experiences offered in Federation Walk Coastal Reserve can be experienced by all on an easily accessible, shared pedestrian-bicycle trail known as Federation Walk.
The Southport Seaway walls were constructed in 1986 to stabilise the Nerang River entrance (previously known as Porpoise Point) for the safety of boats entering from and exiting to the ocean from the Nerang River.
As an unexpected outcome of the Seaway-wall construction, a marine eco-system has been created that now supports and hosts over 500 species of marine life; including, protected and endangered species such as Dugong; Green, Hawksbill and Loggerhead Turtles; and the Queensland Groper.
The Seaway and surrounds at Wavebreak Island in the Broadwater are now considered the best inshore dive-sites of any city in Australia.
Under community pressure, the City of Gold Coast has recently recognised the social and human health benefits of preserving the remaining Natural locations that are easily accessible to residents, as described in their publication, Nature Based Recreation Plan 2015-2025 (NBRP).
(from Nature Based Recreation Plan 2015 - 2025, "2. Scope". CoGC, 2015)
Boat hire on the Gold Coast has always been popular. Nature based tourism is thriving on the Gold Coast.
In 2019, the Queensland State Government also (finally) recognised the value of the long-term Community campaigns to preserve The Spit as a Natural respite from urban pressures and living by conducting a community-led process to establish a Spit Master Plan (SMP).
The SMP is currently being implemented and the plan places limits on the heights, site coverage, designs and locations of current and future commercial activities on The Spit, while retaining over 130 hectares of parks and open space for the public.
In addition to the social and human health benefits, there are also the economic, jobs and tourism benefits of preserving large parts of The Spit and Broadwater as public open space and Natural environments. The Gold Coast is unique with its offerings of world-class surfing, boating, fishing, sailing, swimming, walking, cycling, paddling, diving, whale and bird watching, all on the city’s doorstep on The Spit and Broadwater and in the Seaway.
In fact, even international tourists have voted for Nature as the most appealing attraction when visiting Australia. The research derived from a Tourism Australia Report, using a survey of over 13,000 international tourists, reveals that the most appealing attractions at 40% - 53% appeal are experiences involving:
While "casinos, bars and nightclubs" languished in last place of the 19 tourist activities offered in the Tourism Australia survey at a lowly 12% appeal to international tourists.
Correlative, longitudinal and experimental studies have proven that 'Reconnecting with Nature' makes us feel better because it reduces stress and anxiety and acts as a buffer to negative emotions. Contact with Nature also has a positive physiological effect by reducing the heart rate, muscle tension and blood pressure.
Dr Navjot Bhullar. Reconnecting with Nature. Okham's Razor. ABC Radio National. Pres. T. Taylor. Prod. T. Taylor & J. Bullen. 2 May 2021
Nature Based Recreation Plan 2015 - 2025. CoGC, 2015.
The Spit Master Plan (Final). Qld Govt. DSDMIP, 2019.