One of the main reasons I chose the University that I attended was its magnificent grounds. It had lakes, ponds carpeted in lily pads, open fields that stretched for miles and gorgeous woodland. Towards the end of my second year various pressures started to overwhelm me and I began having intense panic attacks. My head would spin, my heart would scream in my chest and I was convinced that something awful was about to happen. All I wanted to do was run away from everyone and work through my feelings in peace. My favourite place to run was into the woods, where the gurgling streams and rustling trees would welcome and soothe me. It was completely instinctive; something in me knew that a natural environment would help me relieve some anxiety.
It’s not just me. Almost everyone seeks out nature in some form or another. Whether it’s taking your children to the park, hiking, gardening or just having a screensaver of a mountain range, we seem to have an innate need for nature in our lives and believe that it is somehow ‘good’ for us. Well, it appears that it is. There is evidence to suggest that contact with nature can have wide ranging mental and physical health benefits.
In one study, parents of children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) reported that ‘green’ activities like playing football helped their children become more relaxed and more focused. This wasn’t simply the result of doing exercise, though. Children who just sat in a room with natural views were actually calmer than children who played outside in an environment without greenery! (1) Living in areas with more green space may also benefit mental health. A study in the U.S found that where people lived in neighbourhoods with more green space, there were significantly lower reported rates of symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. (2)
There appears to be a correlation between feeling connected to nature through ‘active nature behaviours’ such as feeding birds or planting flowers, and people’s perceptions of their own health and happiness. This is according to an evaluation by Derby University of the ’30 Days Wild’ campaign created by the Wildlife Trusts.(3) People rated their connection to nature and their health and happiness. The amount of people rating their health as ‘excellent’ increased by 30% during the study and the perceived improved health and happiness continued months after the study ended! Dr Miles Richardson, head of psychology at Derby University even said ‘There is a need to normalise everyday nature as part of a healthy lifestyle.” (4)
In Japan enjoyment of nature has been turned into a therapy in the form of ‘Shinrin Yoku’, or ‘Forest Bathing’. The therapy is beautifully simple; all a person undergoing ‘forest bathing’ need do is go to a forest and sit or walk at a leisurely pace, and breathe in the woody scents. The physiological and psychological benefits of forest bathing are backed up by a good deal of scientific evidence. For example, research from Chiba University in Japan found that, compared to city environments, forest environments were associated with lower concentrations of cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’), lower blood pressure, lower pulse rate and lower sympathetic nervous system activity (the system that controls fight or flight responses). (5) Research commissioned by the National Institutes of Health found significant increases in memory span and increases in mood after a nature walk versus an urban walk for subjects with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). The researchers even suggested that interaction with nature could be used to supplement current MDD treatments. (6) Frequent forest bathing may even reduce the risk of psychosocial stress related diseases. (7)
Simply breathing in forest air may help your immune system. Some trees and plants secrete Phytoncide; oils which protect them from insects and bacteria. A study in 2009 by Qing Li, of Nippon Medical School in Tokyo found that after spending time in the forest, participants showed a significant increase in Natural Killer Cell activity (cells linked to a well functioning immune system and to fighting cancer). He suggested that this increase may be due to Phytoncide emitted from the trees and concludes that forest bathing may aid cancer prevention. (8) Pretty amazing effects from just taking a trip to the forest!
Artwork By Anna
Eco therapy is a similar therapy, advocated by the charity Mind. As well as walking or cycling, eco therapy can include a range of outdoor activities such as meditation, gardening or working on conservation projects. It is something you can do in a group following a programme, or alone, and there are lots of tips on Mind’s website to get you started! (9) Gardening can help improve self esteem and reduce anxiety and depression symptoms according to some studies. (10) If you don’t or can’t do gardening, keeping indoor plants can help reduce stress and can even help to purify the air! (11)
It’s hardly surprising that we benefit from spending time in nature. We have inhabited, or at least had close contact with natural environments for most of our time on earth. It’s only fairly recently that people started living in urban, manmade environments with little access to nature, and it may be that nature offers advantages that urban environments cannot. One theory that explains this ‘need’ for nature is Attention Restoration Theory (ART). According to ART the constant, attention grabbing information on computers, phones, signs, etc, plus the stress of traffic and frequent interactions in manmade environments can leave us feeling mentally fatigued. Conversely, natural environments allow us to pay ‘effortless attention’, and require very little of us, while still being engaging and enjoyable. This allows us to replenish our mental resources and can lower our stress levels. (12) (13)
If you don’t have access to forests or green spaces, don’t worry, you can still gain the benefits of Eco therapy. According to some studies, you can experience mental health benefits simply by looking at images of nature. Viewing these nature focused images can help reduce stress and improve mood. Interestingly, a 2015 study found that the more ‘awe inspiring’ the scene, the more mood was improved (possibly because these pictures are more effective at taking us away from our daily experiences). (14) Some studies have even found that patients recovered more quickly and needed less medication when plants were in their room or they had a ‘natural’ view from a hospital window. (15)
The studies I have mentioned here are just the tip of the iceberg. There is research that suggests a link between green spaces and social cohesion (16), better ability to cope with stress (17), increases in energy (18), reduction in aggression (19) – the list is endless. And the best part about this therapy is that it’s non invasive, it’s accessible to most, and it’s completely FREE! So now that summer is here and our green spaces are full of leafy trees and blooming flowers, it’s the perfect time to get out there and treat yourself to some nature!
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