The importance of nature for mental wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic

The latest CRE blog features a guest post by MSc Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security student Jack Swain. Here he talks about the importance of nature and its’ impact on mental wellbeing.

Credit: Poppy Swain –

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed lives across the globe. Here in the UK, we are forced to stay inside our homes and are only allowed to leave to collect food and supplies, care for vulnerable people and exercise once a day. The focus so far has been on reducing the lives lost to the virus and the economic recession that is likely to follow. However, the coronavirus will have other secondary wide-ranging impacts, namely on emotional wellbeing. But there is hope to be found in reconnecting with nature.

Emotional wellbeing has not been treated with the same priority as limiting deaths for obvious reasons. As we get further into this crisis, the secondary impacts of self-isolation will become more obvious. The term ‘social recession’ has been used by several commentators to describe the harmful effects to mental and physical health that reduced human interaction, loneliness and isolation can cause. The so-called loneliness epidemic just became pandemic.

Coronavirus threatens the social connections that humans require. We have evolved to feel safest in groups thanks to our hunter-gatherer origins, where teamwork translated to higher chances of getting food and defending our families. Forced isolation goes against our primal need for connection and causes increased stress. Cortisol levels, a key stress hormone, become heighted if experienced for an extended period of time and overall cardiovascular function decreases with the effect equivalent to the impact of being a smoker or non-smoker. Isolation just doesn’t suit our social nature. Adjusting to life inside, which involves working from home, caring for children and vulnerable people, and not visiting bars, restaurants and cinemas, can have a significant effect on our mental health. These changes can create the conditions for loneliness, referring to the subjective experience of isolation, and ultimately lead to an increase in long-term acute loneliness.

Nature can help us to lessen the impacts of loneliness and isolation. Spending time in nature has real, measured impacts on the body and mind. It has the healing ability of alleviating stress and providing deep psychological relaxation, as well as supporting physical activity. A study by DEFRA found strong evidence linking contact with nature and health benefits, stating that it improves mental wellbeing and even maintains a healthy immune system, effectively making you happier and healthier(1). This message is echoed in the traditional Japanese concept of Shinrin-yoku, which translates to ‘forest bathing’ or taking in the forest atmosphere. Spending as little as 2 hours per week surrounded by trees and greenery has been found to have strong positive effects on health and wellbeing(2) by reducing blood pressure, increasing parasympathetic nerve activity and lowering concentrations of stress hormones(3).

The surroundings on the CRE forest bathing last year

Our rural spaces can play a large role in curbing the impacts of coronavirus on our mental health. Strict government measures have enforced many rules upon what we can do, who we can see and where we can go. But within these new rules is the guidance that people should still go outside for fresh air and exercise. A brief survey carried out for this blog post found that participants talked about feeling more peaceful, refreshed, inspired and generally positive when they made the effort to walk in parks and wooded areas. Being outside surrounded by nature reduced the feeling of being trapped or contained when isolated in their homes. Social distancing can still be observed when enjoying the natural environment and we have many parks, woodlands and urban green spaces that remain accessible to visitors. It is important to respect the current rules when out enjoying nature, ensuring you are at least two metres apart from those you don’t live with and not congregating in groups. I hope this blog post inspires you to go for a walk, run or cycle in your local green space during these tough times.

Why not tag @cretweeting on Twitter with images of the nearby outdoor spaces you are making the most of.


1. Lovell, B. (2017) DEFRA evidence statement on the links between natural environments and human health. Available at: (Accessed: 26th March 2020).

2. White, M.P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J., Wheeler, B.W., Hartig, T., Warber, S.L., Bone, A., Depledge, M.H. and Fleming, L.E. (2019) ‘Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing’, Scientific Reports, 9(1), p. 7730.

3. Park, B.J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T. and Miyazaki, Y. (2009) ‘The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan’, Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, 15(1), p. 18.

Sociology meets chicken processing in County Durham

Jake Pointer is a first year Sociology PhD student studying the lives of workers in the meat processing industry. Here he shares some thoughts on his recent trip to a chicken processing plant in County Durham.

Photo credit: Nick Bondarev

In late February, I had the chance to visit a chicken processing plant in County Durham on a university trip organised by the Centre for Rural Economy. As my research concerns those working in the meat sector, it was an excellent chance to have my first glance into the working lives within such a facility. I went into this with mixed feelings: my vegan beliefs are naturally against any meat-orientated food producers, but my scholarly mind was telling me to put my biases aside and go in as objectively as possible. In this context, and as I’m quickly learning is the case for all my research, the scholarly mind was certainly the appropriate one to tap into for this visit (although this is sometimes challenging).

On arrival to the plant, the first thing I noticed was the smell of (perhaps not surprisingly) chicken. As we walked through the large gates and into the reception the smell only grew stronger until, for me at least, it was almost overpowering. After a brief talk from one of the managers about the plant we were split into groups and were given a tour. Before entering the processing areas we had to gear up with protective clothing and hairnets as well as wash our hands thoroughly. It seemed to me health and safety was of high importance here.

Inside the working areas were large machines, which, in various ways, processed the chicken. Slicing, freezing, cooking, bagging, skinning; there was a machine for everything. Many of the workers engaged in these machines had seemingly monotonous tasks, often involving repetitive motions such as continuously unloading a box of chicken pieces into a machine. Within the arrival area it was very cold as this is also where the chicken carcasses enter the plant and so they need to be kept fresh before being processed. This also means that plenty of workers operate in a cold environment. It was also quite loud in the factory, with various machines working away as well as speakers playing music here and there. Having worked in a warehouse some years ago myself, I can appreciate the effect music has on making an otherwise monotonous and often boring task more tolerable.

Whilst the tour was focused on the chicken, I was almost always looking at the workers, trying to use my sociological imagination and see if I could notice anything of interest. Some of the safety signs I noticed were in Polish next to their English counterparts, an indicator of the presence of non-British workers. I felt translating these signs was good work practice as safety should, in my opinion, be the priority in a potentially dangerous job such as this. The work-ethic seemed very high, with the workers seemingly never stopping whatever they were occupied with for even a second. I would not say they looked happy, but rather indifferent to their tasks, almost robotic as ever more chicken came through ready to be loaded into this machine or that. Few were talking at all, with most applying their attention only to their task. I would say that all the jobs required focus as the machines operated at high speed and a lapse of concentration would hinder this, and as a result, production. Many of the jobs also looked very physically demanding, often involving the lifting of large boxes or pulling huge pallets stuffed with chickens.

After the tour, we were led to the small conference room for a short Q and A session with the director of the company. The majority of questions were about the chicken itself; the quality, the manufacturers supplied and so on which the director and his mangers were happy to answer. It was clear they were proud of their work there, supplying high-quality, British ‘protein products’. I inquired about the workforce, in relation to the Polish signs I saw, and was told that around 30% of the employees were Polish. In addition, I was interested to see if they ever have injuries and if so, what the common ones were. The Director seemed a little surprised at my question. The Operations Manager told me the majority are made up of cuts, slips or back problems. I was surprised by how open they were about this. These answers raised more questions in my mind, why so many Polish workers? How are the injuries dealt with? but as I was there as part of a group, I did not want to dominate the session. A question was also posed about the vegan food factory which was operating just up the road. The director was very open to the changing food market and told us it was the company’s responsibility to adapt accordingly. He made a point that the businesses that do not adapt are the ones that close down.

I went away from this trip with mixed feelings. The scholarly side of me was happy with such an opportunity and experience, and I found observing the working environment fascinating. Worker safety did seem a high priority, which I was pleased to see. However, I would have been intrigued to hear from the employees themselves; their thoughts on the job, if they enjoyed working there, job prospects, what they thought of the management, whether the non-British workers integrated well and whether anyone ever thinks of the chickens at all and how they fit in with the process?  These questions I will have to save for another day; with a bit of luck, my research will help answer these and other questions in the future.

CRE PGR Symposium 2020

In the latest CRE blog, PhD students Hannah Budge and Ivy Matoju talk through their experience of organising the annual CRE postgraduate student symposium.

PhD student Ivy Matjou presents an overview of her research

Each year the students from the Centre for Rural Economy (CRE) organise a symposium to showcase the research they are working. It also provides a fantastic opportunity to receive comments on their work from their peers and colleagues in CRE. This year the symposium was held in the impressive surroundings of the Howden Room on campus, which really helped to add to the occasion.

This year we took a slightly different approach to the symposium, with the day was filled with a combination of rapid 3-minute presentations by the first year PhD students, insightful talks from staff based on their own research experiences, 10-minute presentations by the second year and above students, as well as the usual short papers submitted by students for staff to peer-review prior to the day itself.

Following the introduction by Hannah, the talks took the audience across a range of subject areas and geographical ones too: from the development of Responsible Research and Innovation frameworks, understanding place attachment in the era of mobilities, to the aspect of human rights, and to women in agriculture, and; from as close to home as the north-east of England, to the Islands of Scotland and as far away as Mexico’s Valle de Jovel, Southeast Nigeria and West Papua (Indonesia).

PhD student Hannah Budge presentsing at the CRE symposium

The 3-minute presentations by the 1st years were exceptionally detailed given the time constraints they had (it was amazing just how much could fit into such a short space of time). They outlined providing outlines of the ideas they will be following through their years at the university, including room for change and adaption required when conducting research in the field. The remaining presentations focused on the results obtained so far in the students’ studies, hurdles they had encountered and changes they had to put in place.

The exchanges between the presenters and the audience were viewed as beneficial by both groups with the exchange of thoughts, ideas, concerns and interests amazing to witness. Participants in the symposium stated that the event had allowed them to see new links between the topics presented and their research areas of interest or more generally other opportunities to consider throughout their PhD, thanks to the inclusion of other talks such as the use of social media and experience of pursuing a PhD with CRE. The submitted paper was also deemed to be of the appetizing variety with the reviewers’ keen to read the full version conference paper entered. The social at the end of the day provided a good way of winding down and further conversation on shared interests and future opportunities.

The symposium in full swing


We both enjoyed the opportunity to organise the CRE PGR Symposium, and the final event itself. How smoothly it ran reflected our combined efforts over the past few months. It was not however without some issues along the way, we have summarised this below in the form of some handy tips for those who are considering organising similar events in the future, including next year’s symposium;

  • START EARLY! It may seem like an obvious point, but we cannot stress this enough. We started meeting weekly from the beginning of November and this meant that the workload was spread out over a few months, making it much more manageable to fit in around our own research and prevented any last-minute stress.
  • Speak to others who have organised and attended past events. By listening to their experiences, for instance issues with too small rooms, this meant that we could learn from them and avoid similar situations. Additionally, their feedback was valuable in terms of how the event was structured. By showing that you have taken on their concerns means that people are more likely to engage with the event as it continues to evolve the fit the needs of students.
  • Be flexible and creative with your timetable. One problem we had was that many of the PGR students were away conducting their fieldwork when they symposium was on, meaning it was difficult to initially fill up the entire day due to a lack of participants. To solve this, we had had to think creatively on what we could do to fill this time, we settled on asking some staff members in CRE if they would be willing to help. We are very grateful that they were happy to do so! There was an insightful talk about doing, and life after, a PhD in CRE and a presentation regarding using social media to promote yourself as a researcher. The latter generated much discussion and potentially a future social media training session for those in CRE. This highlighted that thinking of what else you can therefore offer at an event is important.
  • Plan breaks to keep everyone well fed and hydrated. The continuous supply of coffee and food ensured that people’s concentration levels didn’t falter throughout the day, and by having breaks meant that people could chat to others about their research and give some informal feedback. So, a thank you to CRE for funding the refreshments!
  • And finally, enjoy it! After months of work it was great to sit and listen to the presentations highlighting the diversity of topics in CRE, and afterwards hearing that people felt more confident about their presentation skills. It was nice to hear our hard work had proved to be fruitful for others.

Thank you again to everyone who attended and contributed to the event! We couldn’t have done it without you all.