If you go down to the woods – or parks, hills or anywhere in nature – today, you’re sure of a big boost to your wellbeing. This is thanks to the huge range of benefits nature promises for your mental health…
The soothing smell of pine trees, the calming effect of an ocean view, the beautiful sunset that can move you to tears…we’ve all felt the power of nature. But a groundswell of research is now showing that spending time in the great outdoors gives you more than just a good feeling. It has real, measurable benefits, both mental and physical, that add years to your life.
‘Scientists are quantifying nature’s effect not only on mood and wellbeing, but also on your ability to think – to remember, plan, create, daydream and to focus – as well as on your social skills,’ says Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix (£10.63, Norton).
But, the more everyday technology tends to dominate the way we navigate modern life, the less likely we are to tap into the wellbeing so readily available to us in the wild. The average Brit now spends more time using technological devices than they do sleeping – let alone exploring, socialising or taking time to ‘just be’ in the great outdoors. ‘We don’t experience natural environments enough to realise how restored they can make us feel,’ says Florence
What are the mental health benefits of nature?
With science exploring the positive impact the wild has on our brains, the ‘nature effect’ is now a hot topic. And the findings are hard to ignore. While even tiny ‘nature snacks’ have been shown to boost wellbeing, if you seek out longer forays into nature – for example an extended weekend in the wild or a short rural retreat – you’ll reap even bigger benefits for your mental health and wellbeing.
In one Japanese study, where participants spent three days in a forest, their levels of killer white blood cells – so-called because they attack infections – soared by 50 per cent. Plus, their heart rates also lowered.
No matter how much of a nature fix you opt for, and no matter where you do it, there are some serious mental health and wellbeing benefits to be had. Ready to re-wild yourself? Then it’s time to step outside. We take a closer look at the specific mental health benefits of taking part in different activities in the great outdoors…
Benefits of forest bathing for mental health
Forests have been grabbing health headlines in the past couple of years thanks to Japanese research into Shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing’. Its popularity has spread into the UK so much so that Center Parcs’ newly refurbished Sherwood Forest spa has a dedicated forest bathing area, where you can stroll in the woods and enjoy treetop saunas!
In studies that looked at walkers’ wellbeing when they returned from a woodland stroll, they were found to have lower blood pressure and fewer adrenaline-triggered stress hormones. One of the intriguing reasons for this is the antibacterial phytoncides we breathe in in a forest.
Plants – particularly pine trees – emit large amounts of these airborne particles that encourage your immune system’s defenses. They also relax your parasympathetic nervous system, thereby reducing stress hormones.
Try a forest meditation:
Spending time among trees gives the cognitive portion of your brain a break from the drain of multi-tasking. When your mind overloads, it can cause attention fatigue. This makes it difficult to focus.
However, you can help your brain to refresh by practising a little ‘forest meditation’. Notice the sounds, smells and sights of the forest, while allowing your inner dialogue to fall silent.
Wellness benefits of walking in nature parks
Don’t under-estimate the power of the park! Even the smallest nugget of nature can unleash serious benefits to those who make time for it. Simply being in green spaces – in fact just looking out of a window at a natural scene – can diminish stress and boost memory and concentration.
Researchers from the University of Michigan found that students performed better in memory and attention tests after they took a walk in a park, compared to those who walked through the city streets.
In a Finnish study, city dwellers who strolled for 20 minutes through an urban park reported significantly more relaxation than those who strolled in a city centre. If you live in an urban area, try tweaking your daily habits so you consciously seek out nature more. You could vary your commute so you walk through a park, seek out routes with trees, and enjoy the natural (or otherwise) sounds around you.
Benefits of walking barefoot on grass
A grassy park is a great place to kick off your shoes. Walking barefoot maximises sensitivity of the 200,000 nerve endings in your feet. This helps your whole body to function better and encourages you to feel more calm and mindful.
Of course you have to pay more attention if you are barefoot too, so that you don’t step on anything nasty. This means your mind is less likely to wander, making it easier for you to be present in the moment.
How landscapes in nature benefit your mental health
Big, goosebump-inspiring views make people feel more inclined to help someone in need. This is according to researchers from the University of California. They found that awe – the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world – leads people to think less of their own entitlement, and more of others.
It may also boost your body’s defence system. Like with the forest bathing study, researchers linked the awe we feel when touched by the beauty of nature with lower levels of inflammatory proteins called cytokines. In turn, this benefits your immune system.
‘The fact that awe, wonder and beauty promote lower levels of cytokines suggests the things we do to experience these emotions – including a walk in nature – have a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,’ says study co-author, psychologist Dacher Keltner.
Try cloud gazing to improve your wellbeing
Being in the hills also gives you the opportunity to look up and cloud gaze. Lie on your back and watch the clouds change and morph above you.
Pretend you’re a child again and flex your imagination, looking for pictures in the clouds. Soft, drifting clouds are also a great focus for some outdoor meditation. Simply watch, notice and join the clouds in their natural state of flow.
Words: Cathy Struthers | Images: Shutterstock