Written by Ruth Weaver
Humans are a part of nature. Unfortunately in modern life many of us are severed from it. This has consequences on our wellbeing, and this article explains how a disconnection from the natural world affects us.
Many of us, who live in urban or suburban areas will have experienced the yearning that comes with time spent too long away from nature. It is those moments spent outdoors, where we experience the simple, yet fundamental pleasures of listening to the wind in the trees, watching butterflies and birds going about their day or catching the scent of a fragrant bloom that brings us back to our true nature.
Many of us experience this yearning to some degree, a thirst that many who have had the privilege of growing up close to nature know how to quench. However it is clear that those living in more urban areas such as towns and cities, are often living lives that are lacking in even the most simple experiences in or with nature.
‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ or NDD is a term used where this under-exposure to nature is chronic and potentially causing one to become unwell. Nature Deficit Disorder refers to a state of being in which there is emotional and physical disharmony associated with prolonged lack of exposure to nature, this can be experienced by both adults and children.
The notions around health-promoting effects of contact and interactions with ‘nature’ have been around for some time, yet they have more recently been subjected to more attentive scientific exploration and in some views, as a matter that needs addressing in urgency. A number of studies have been carried out to determine the true effects it is having on human health and the findings are compelling.
NDD is a common anomaly of modern Western societal life, yet at this pivotal time in human history, the solutions to this epidemic have become a point of focus. In this article we will take a closer look at what is causing NDD, who is affected, the views of NDD among the scientific community and what can be done to curb this modern problem.
What is Nature Deficit Disorder?
The term Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD) was originally coined by Richard Louv, a journalist and author of numerous books on the connection between family, nature and community, in which he investigates the relationship of humans and the natural world in both current and historical contexts. The possible outcomes that result from this disconnection or alienation from nature are varied, and may be identified or perceived by those whose lives are typically distanced from green spaces and experiences in nature.
NDD is a description of the human costs of alienation from nature. Note: that NDD is currently not a recognised medical diagnosis but a means to explain the link between health imbalance and nature deprivation and the possible outcomes. Some of the outcomes are understood to be both having a negative effect on physical and emotional health and may include symptoms such as; a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, dissociation and higher rates mental illness. In children symptoms are thought to sometimes include hyperactivity, low mood or motivation and lack of attention.
Why is Nature Deficit Disorder happening?
Humans have evolved in the natural world, we come from primitive beginnings where understanding and interacting with the natural environment was a necessity for survival and wellbeing. It is in the wild that we evolved physically, mentally and intellectually.
The relationship between mankind and nature is an oxymoron, mankind ‘is’ nature or is part of nature – we have just forgotten it. When we remember this fact, and remember our ancestors (even those not so distant as we may think), we can see how far removed we are from the world that we are part of.
Now, in the modern world where our food, medicine, resources etc are produced or manufactured industrially, where we are able to access information at the click of a button – we ‘need’ less to have the connection to natural rhythms. We can use the internet to check the weather (where we would once have understood the conditions and natural events). We can rely on technological world for almost everything that we would have once understood and depended upon from our direct understanding and connection to nature.
There are a number of reasons that we are spending more time away from nature. Louv describes that as of 2008, for the first time in human history, more people are living in cities than in the countryside. The issue is more the absence of nature and green spaces in cities, rather than the cities themselves. It has been shown that the wellbeing rates in communities where there are more trees and green spaces is higher (5). Among the above mentioned, the following are also factors that may be contributing to the cause of NDD:
Biodiversity and habitat loss
Of course it cannot be ignored that the loss of habitats and biodiversity is a factor. The decline in biodiversity directly reduces our exposure and consequently reduces our value in nature.
There are issues of ‘biophobia’ which is both linked to cultural fear of ‘risks’. There is also a link between biophobia and climate anxiety, where it is thought that children are conditioned at an early age to associate nature with environmental disasters.
Technology now dominates almost every aspect of our lives, children’s lives are over-programmed and immersed in the virtual world.
Louv describes that ‘as we spend more of our lives engaging in the technological world, our senses narrow; the more time we spend in the virtual world, the less alive we feel’.
The causes are rarely through fault of our own, all of the above are unfortunately side effects of the society that has been built around us, that we have grown up into. However, it is clear that this awareness is spreading and that changes need to be made on a wider scale to help change the course of our discord to nature, for the benefit of both people and the planet.
Who is most at risk?
In most Western cultures we are now at our furthest point of disconnection from the natural world. Yet we have reached a point where we are starting to become acutely aware of the ‘symptoms’ created by this distance.
Many of us, who live in urban or suburban areas will have experienced the yearning that comes with time spent too long away from nature. However, now many are living in conditions so far removed from nature, in the depth of cities or towns, away from anything that resembles an undisturbed natural habitat, these simple experiences are directly inaccessible. Often times people are so disconnected from nature they do not realize that is what they are actually missing. For example, a Londoner born and raised in the chaos of the city may not have had the privilege of spending extended time in nature and so may not know that this may chip away at their peace.
NDD can affect people whose work or personal life is distanced from nature. It is certainly a problem effecting children, arguably the most. Access to garden or outdoor space is a luxury, let alone having space to fully engage in hands on activities in nature such as growing food or foraging for medicine. Still even if one has a garden or local park, nothing can replace the experience of being in wild nature untouched and unkempt by humans.
Secondary to the more personal effects of NDD, there are of course implications with the wider issue of disassociation to nature and our value in the environment that essentially results in the disregard of it; what we do not connect to or understand we are less likely to care for. Therefore it could be argued that under-exposure to nature is also an environmental problem.
Research and studies
The initial questions asked by the scientific community are; how is this enhanced wellbeing by nature exposure measured, what are these wellbeing outcomes and then, what could the solutions to the health effects of under-exposure look like?
Much of the focus of research, particularly where children are involved, has been on both measuring connectedness to nature in an urban setting and related mental and cognitive functioning and wellbeing (4). The solutions are varied depending on demographic and who is being effected. However the research has identified that for those who are displaying symptoms of NDD, all forms and quantities of exposure are beneficial (1).
There are numerous papers that have evaluated the evidence and the findings are clear; Overall mental health, self-esteem, stress resilience, depression and overall health are found to have been improved by exposure to nature (2,3). Learning settings that incorporate nature activities with accessible green spaces display significantly improved mental health outcomes in children (2,3), making a clear case for schools and other educational settings to improve access to nature activities and green spaces. See our articles for how forest schools can affect children’s development.
A mixed method pilot study of high school graduates attending a four-week wilderness camp was set up with the intention to investigate whether nature-based camp experiences would increase connection to nature and promote multiple elements of well-being. The study concluded that all well-being outcomes significantly improved, including perceived stress, relaxation, positive and negative emotions, sense of wholeness and social connections. These results can inform future research agendas and reinforce that nature immersion experiences could address the risk of nature-deficit disorder, improving health and social outcomes in young people (7).
In another paper, nine recommendations are drawn for addressing nature deficits at the population level. Some of these include bringing green everyday spaces and views closer to both work and educational settings, and bringing green activities and events into towns and cities. It also includes making green activity programs more accessible in communities, and to be considerate of barriers which can prohibit people starting green activities (1).
For the general population; the responsibilities for improving access to nature in towns and cities truly lies with the government and city/ town council to support better utilisation of public spaces for engaging in green activities and community growing projects. For workers; company owners may be encouraged to integrate nature into the work space or working life where possible, whether this be bringing indoor plants into offices or offering better working hours to allow for more time for workers to access and enjoy green spaces.
It is most clear that better nature education and improved green spaces in schools and educational settings is of upmost importance for the wellbeing of children.
What can we all do to help?
As we have seen, there is a strong case for re-engaging with the outdoors, on a number of different levels- as a means of enhanced personal and environmental wellbeing. It is our natural biological connection to the surrounding ‘life’ that we are part of – which brings us wellbeing.
The issue of nature access is something we can all consider. As we can see, nature is not always directly accessible, particularly in heavily urban areas of cities. The first step is to spread the awareness of this issue whether you are directly effected or not, we can all play a part in supporting people in our communities.
Supporting or engaging with local community projects that offer forest school activities for children or community food growing projects in cities is a great way to help move nature closer to the communities that need it the most. One can find out about projects that are bringing nature closer to cities by visiting the World Economic Forum ’15 innovations bringing nature back into our cities’ or contact your local school or council to find out if there is a way to support nature projects for children in your area.
We can see a clear link between the missing connection that is caused by a lack of interaction with the natural world and lower level of overall wellbeing, in both mind and body. When humans engage with the world more primitively through walking outdoors, gardening, community growing, foraging or working with natural resources; the value of the human – nature relationship also becomes more immediate, and its importance is realised.
The matter of nature connection is personal and societal but it is also environmental- with restored connection comes a true value for the natural world, a value that would mean we would want to care for it, because we are part of it – both preserving and sustaining it for the future generations and for all life on earth.
- Ming” Kuo, F.E. (2013). Nature-deficit disorder: evidence, dosage, and treatment. Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure and Events, 5(2), pp.172–186. doi:10.1080/19407963.2013.793520.
- Tillmann, S., Tobin, D., Avison, W. and Gilliland, J. (2018). Mental health benefits of interactions with nature in children and teenagers: a systematic review. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, [online] 72(10), pp.958–966. doi:10.1136/jech-2018-210436.
- McCormick, R. (2017). Does Access to Green Space Impact the Mental Well-being of Children: A Systematic Review. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 37, pp.3–7. doi:10.1016/j.pedn.2017.08.027.
- Sobko, T., Jia, Z. and Brown, G. (2018). Measuring connectedness to nature in preschool children in an urban setting and its relation to psychological functioning. PLOS ONE, 13(11), p.e0207057. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0207057.
- Hunter, R.F., Cleland, C., Cleary, A., Droomers, M., Wheeler, B.W., Sinnett, D., Nieuwenhuijsen, M.J. and Braubach, M. (2019). Environmental, health, wellbeing, social and equity effects of urban green space interventions: A meta-narrative evidence synthesis. Environment International, 130, p.104923. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2019.104923.
- World Economic Forum. (n.d.). 15 innovations that are bringing nature back into our cities. [online] Available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/01/15-innovations-helping-cities-become-nature-positive-biodiverse-hubs/ [Accessed 9 Aug. 2022].
- Warber, S.L., DeHudy, A.A., Bialko, M.F., Marselle, M.R. and Irvine, K.N. (2015). Addressing ‘Nature-Deficit Disorder’: A Mixed Methods Pilot Study of Young Adults Attending a Wilderness Camp. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, [online] 2015, pp.1–13. doi:10.1155/2015/651827.