Nature as Therapy: Why Getting Outdoors is Good for Your Mental Health

"I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees"

Friday, 20th April 2018

Ever returned from a weekend in the countryside and felt a whole lot better? It might seem obvious that escaping the hectic razzle dazzle of city living would have its benefits. But according to an increasing body of research, that refreshed feeling could be down to more than just a change of scene and a more relaxed pace.

The key might be in nature herself.

A new study looking into the way that green spaces impact mental wellbeing points to just that. The research was the largest of its kind involving 95,000 participants across 10 different UK cities. The study uncovered “a protective effect of greenness on depression”, showing that those living in leafier communities were 4% less likely to suffer from major depressive disorder.

Cities have become magnets of opportunity, with more of us being drawn to city life than at any other point in history. So much so that by 2050 70% of the world’s population are expected to be urban dwellers. Following these findings Dr Chinmoy Sarkar, who led the study, is calling for city planners to join forces with health professionals to work towards creating urban spaces that support our wellbeing, both physically and mentally.

Of course, it’s not the first time that scientists have looked to uncover the influence of the natural world on our health and wellbeing. In 1984, Edward O. Wilson published ‘Biophilia’ putting forward the theory that nature is in fact rooted in our genetics and biology. The term Biophilia was first coined by a German psychologist, Eric Fromm, meaning ‘love of life or living systems’ which he used to describe our psychological pull towards all things that are alive and vital. Whilst phobias reflect our innermost fears, philias are the reverse, reflecting our natural affinity for life and the natural world. Perhaps best put by Wilson himself, Biophilia is “an innate love for the natural world, universally felt by all, and resulting at least in part from our genetic make-up and evolutionary history”.

Further afield, Japan made shrinrin-yoku - ‘forest bathing’ - a part of its national public health program in 1982. Literally meaning ‘taking in the forest atmosphere’, the purpose of forest bathing is to simply immerse and reconnect with nature. Over the course of 8 years, Japanese officials studied the physiological and psychological impact of forest bathing. When compared to the city, they found that levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, dropped after participants spent just 30 minutes immersed in nature. The forest environment also appeared to decrease activity in the sympathetic nervous system which triggers our bodies “fight-or-flight” response. Furthermore, the study showed that time spent outdoors can even help bolster immunity, increasing the activity of human natural killer (NK) cells, which protect us from cancer, amongst other diseases. And such protective effects appeared long-standing, lasting up to a month after a weekend spent in nature.

The good news is we’re starting to take note. The NHS have introduced “green prescriptions” as a means to get people moving and support both physical and mental wellbeing. In 2016, a report undertaken by Natural England and mental health charity Mind focused on three main green care initiatives to help support people struggling with mental health issues (care farming, environmental conservation and therapeutic horticulture), illustrating how these types of social activities have helped lessen symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression. Whether we should be giving credit to nature herself or the sense of purpose and achievement that comes with meeting new people and learning a new skill it’s difficult to tell. But certainly the combination is a powerful one - and at little cost.

Before you pack your bags and head off into the wilderness, it’s worth noting that we don’t need much from nature in order to reap her health benefits. Studies have shown that just the small things like more trees in the streets and better access to parks and greenery in urban areas can make all the difference.

Here are our tips for getting more green into your life:

Start your mornings right
A recent study suggests that just one short, daily exposure to nature can last for up to 7 hours. In other words, a morning run or walk in the park has the potential to set you up for the whole day!

Get a dose of flower power
Recent studies suggest flowers might do more than just brighten up a dreary room. A 2008 study found that hospital patients with flowers in their room felt less anxious than those without them. They were also found to be more positive about their hopes of recovery, and required less aftercare following treatment.

Water is medicine
Nothing beats the pitter patter of raindrops or the gentle sound of flowing water… And would seem we’re more connected than we think. Water makes up about 70% of the human body and about 70% of Earth. Studies have shown that people living near to the coast are generally healthier and happier than those based inland. Whilst there’s no need to pack it all up for a new life on the coast, making an extra effort to visit that local pond, lake, stream or river near home can provide a natural mood boost.

If outdoors isn’t an option, then look out the window or at pictures!
It might sound strange, but research shows you don’t necessarily have to be immersed in nature to experience the benefits. A study published by Environmental Science and Technology in 2013 studied the effects of simply looking at awe-inspiring nature photographs. The groups had to look at nature images or inner city environments for 10 minutes and then complete a stressful task. Those who’d looked at natural landscapes showed higher activity of the parasympathetic nervous system which helps balance our “flight-or-flight” response.

As we become more connected digitally, we seem to be drifting further away from the natural world. Back in the day, we had no option but to immerse ourselves in nature. We were constantly surrounded by wild landscapes, plants, animals; it was our natural environment. Perhaps the expanse of nature helps put things in perspective, reminding us that we’re but one spec in a vast ecosystem. Even if just for a moment, this realisation takes us out of our heads and grounds us back firmly into our bodies.

Today marks International Mother Earth Day. More than ever, we need to protect Mother Earth - but also humbly recognise that we need her protection too.

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