Have you spent time out in nature recently? Perhaps not. The global lockdown to battle the spread of Covid 19 has placed us in the confines of our homes for weeks. But what about before, when we were able to move with more freedom and a choice? It might seem unrealistic, but the school of thought that spending time in natural spaces can positively impact our mental health has been growing, and for good reason.
Consider this: by 2050, the UN has projected that 68% of the World’s population will live in cities. This statistic points towards the progressive urbanisation of our planet, in which natural, outdoor spaces are not the focus of planning committees. Therefore, time outside is becoming increasingly challenging, especially when we consider the socio-economic disparities in access to quality spaces. Add in the ever increasing levels of technological dependency, we aren’t connected to nature in the ways we used to be.
Now ask yourself, who are you when you aren’t rushing around at a million miles an hour? If we don’t take the time to slow down from our busy schedules, to check in with ourselves and process the stresses and anxieties of daily life, then we aren’t giving ourselves the time we deserve to rest and recharge. This is exactly where being outside can help us.
Numerous studies looking at the effects of time in the natural environment on our mental wellbeing point towards a positive correlation. An exploratory study focussed on the positive impact of simply looking at pictures of the natural environment had on participants' moods; it found that the greater the natural environment, the greater the benefit to the participants. Meanwhile, a study into neighbourhood greenspaces in urbanised areas found that mental health outcomes were significantly improved where the density of parks and natural spaces was higher. And, most critically, a meta-analysis of the relationship between time outside and happiness found that “individuals who are more connected to nature tend to be happier.” The science is out there, and it is taking us outside.
So, what can time outside look like? The Heart Foundation suggests walking as one simple activity which can combat depression, while sitting and practicing breathing exercises will have a calming, anxiety-reducing effect. They even put forward that engaging as many of your senses as possible will help keep you focussed in the moment. The scent of flowers, the sound of the birdsong and the texture of the trees can all keep you from being distracted by the things that may plague your mind while inside.
In Japan, the act of shinrin-yoku is believed to have a lasting effect on a psychological level. Translated, it literally means ‘forest bathing’, which is interpreted to be the act of immersing oneself in the forest environment: walking within it, allowing the senses to become attuned to their natural surroundings. This ancient practice isn’t about exercise, it is about simply being present in the moment when you are outside. And it’s impacts? A recent study found that regular shinrin-yoku practice reduced stress and depression in participants, and simultaneously increased their sense of liveliness. All from walking in the woods.
John Muir, a famous naturalist, once wrote “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings”, endorsing the pursuit of time walking in the alpine regions of California. The idea that we can feel better in the wilds of mountainous regions is what inspires thousands of people to Nepal each year, to walk and climb within the Himalayas. On returning from a recent trip, friends reported the joy of disconnecting from work, technology and even some of the most simple luxuries while trekking. Admittedly, planes may not be available to us at this moment, but the idea of committing to a long walk in the local hills and mountains, disconnecting from technology and actively engaging in the surroundings will still offer us the same opportunity to feel better.
Have you ever considered that taking a walk in the local park could have such a positive impact? While it may not be as wild as the woods or the mountains, it is fundamentally still natural. The expansive grass, beds of flowers and trees lining the paths all offer a connection to nature. Ultimately the free therapy of being out of the house in natural spaces is one we can all afford. While what we have access to may differ, the conscious decision to be outside and take some quiet time to reset our rhythm will lift our mood each and every time.
So next time you feel like you need a break, require some space or want to seek out some calming quiet, keeping outside in mind. Whether you seek out a forest to engage in some shinrin-yoku, stroll along the beach to immerse your feet (or whole body) in the ocean, or simply visit your local park to sit and watch the world go by, actively choosing time outside in the best natural environment you can will help keep anxiety at bay. Read more about the benefits of taking breaks.