Nature Deficit Disorder

Is your child suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder?

More people live in cities now than at any time in history. While urban life has many advantages, it often means that city dwellers have less access to nature: open green spaces, plants and wildlife and the freedom to explore. Lack of access to nature affects your physical and mental health and is linked to obesity, anxiety and depression. These symptoms of separation from the natural world are known as Nature Deficit Disorder.

Nature Deficit Disorder was first described by Richard Louv in “Last Child in the Woods” where he talks about “the human cost of alienation from the natural world.” Recent generations have become more and more detached from nature. In the US, visitor numbers to National Parks increased year after year from World War II until the late 1980s; since then they have fallen steadily. A study by The Nature Conservancy showed the numbers to confirm what grandparents already knew: nowadays more children prefer screen time to playing outdoors.

Hamish inspecting flower

There’s broad agreement that it’s good for children to play outdoors, not least as a partial solution to the obesity epidemic. But what about adults? If – like most adults – you live in a city, does lack of access to nature make any difference to you? Surely you don’t need to hike up hills and climb trees if you can visit the gym; surely you can learn more about the wonders of nature on National Geographic than by walking through a muddy wood?

The problem isn’t just about appreciating the natural world and getting some exercise. The problem lies in what’s called “the biophilia hypothesis”. This means that deep down in your genes you’re a part of the natural world; if you cut yourself off then your physical, mental and emotional health suffers.

Of course, this isn’t really surprising. Any counselor will tell you that stress is a normal thing – the “fight or flight” response – and it’s only when you’re dealing with modern pressures you can’t fight or flee from that it becomes a problem. In the same way, Nature Deficit Disorder is your mind and body’s response to lack of connection with the natural world.

A great example of this is the effect of nature on your ability to pay attention. Psychologists talk about two types of attention: voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary attention is what you give to a task at work, or to driving on a busy road, or to an important conversation. Involuntary attention doesn’t require an effort: it’s the attention you give to a movement at the edge of your vision or a sudden flash of light. Too much voluntary attention is exhausting; you lose focus after a while. Involuntary attention actually recharges your batteries, so that you can start paying voluntary attention again.

What’s one of the best sources of involuntary attention? You guessed it: it’s the natural world. The swaying of grass in the breeze, the way sunlight filters through leaves, the sudden movement of a bird or a squirrel, the unexpected color of a flower or a bunch or berries: all these will grab your involuntary attention and give your mind a chance to recharge. Studies show that nature can restore your focus and attention in ways that having the TV on in the background or distractedly swiping through your phone just can’t.

Studies also show that contact with nature will affect your mental and emotional health. It reduces anger and aggression, increases a sense of belonging and acceptance and has even been demonstrated to reduce crime and increase feelings of social safety. You know that your mental and physical health are linked: depression and anxiety can lead to poor self-care and worse medical outcomes. Walking through a forest or along a beach is more than a good cardiovascular workout: it benefits your whole self.

Nature Deficit Disorder is not a diagnosis: it is a description of what happens when you lose contact with your natural environment. If you find yourself stressed, tired, unable to pay attention, run down or just overwhelmed by life, consider trying something as simple as a walk in a park. You might just be surprised how much better you can feel!