You need to get out more!
A couple of months ago, at the height of a sweltering Queensland summer, I woke very early. As I lay in the sticky stillness of the predawn night, the birdsong drew me up and out of my backdoor. I sat down on the relative cool of the back patio steps. The sky was that purple shade of predawn, the stillness of the air was mesmerising. But most of all, I was entranced by the songs of the birds: I was sitting in the middle of an aerial amphitheatre, an exquisite symphony of call and return. The songs echoed and bounced around me, resonant and full, echoing and rich. It was the birds’ time. There was nothing else. No one else. No other sound. And it took me completely out of myself, out of my busy, stressful life. It was as if everything stood still and I had a moment to breathe, to connect fully with myself, to listen deeply. In that moment, I connected with something so much bigger than myself and my worries. And I felt easier and better in my world.
And it seems I am not alone. I have noticed over the years of being in practice that some clients in particular clearly benefit from being in nature. With one severely traumatised refugee client, we realised together that talking together in the refugee organisation’s healing garden helped him enormously to regulate very intense feelings, and thereby begin the slow process of working with his trauma. (It also provided him with tools to take away – when he became very triggered he knew that finding a garden or a park would really help him). Or another client with a particular set of attachment issues who found being in a park amongst trees helped her feel emotionally safer and therefore able to work with me on her issues more effectively. (Talking while wandering or sitting in a park also offers more space and less direct contact, which can be hard for some).
That morning on my patio steps reminded of these clients and others, and so I did some research. And indeed, there is now increasing evidence that contact with nature can be beneficial for your mental health. A study by the UK’s University of Exeter, for example, analysed mental health data from 10,000 city dwellers and used high resolution mapping to track where the subjects had lived over 18 years. They found that people living near more green space reported less mental distress (even after adjusting for income, education and employment all of which are also correlated with health). And in 2009, a Dutch research team found a lower incidence of no less than 15 diseases – including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma and migraines – in people who lived within half a mile of green space. Pretty impressive.
In fact, the importance of nature has become so well known that some governments are now “prescribing” contact with nature as part of their public health policy. In Finland, for example, a country which has high rates of depression, alcoholism, and suicide, government-funded researchers recommend a minimum nature dose of five hours a month—several short visits a week—to ward off the blues, noting that a 40 – 50 minute walk seems to be enough for physiological changes and mood changes and probably for attention.
South Korea and Japan take it even more seriously. Japan has created no less than 31 “Forest Therapy Bases”. These are designated areas of forest for therapeutic walking (or Shirin-Yoku – literally “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing”), some of which provide healing programmes for many groups from war veterans to new mums and many more. Interestingly, research shows that one of the biggest benefits may come from breathing in chemicals called phytoncides, emitted by trees and plants. Women who logged two to four hours in a forest on two consecutive days saw a nearly 40 percent surge in the activity of cancer-fighting white blood cells, according to one study. In fact, current research shows that being in nature can lead to a very impressive range of benefits including: reduced blood pressure, reduced stress, improved mood, increased ability to focus (even in children with ADHD), accelerated recovery from surgery or illness, increased energy levels and improved sleep.
As I sat on my patio that morning, I made a promise to myself to try to find more time in the natural world and to notice the green around me. It’s helping. Whereever you are, in the middle of a busy city or out in the bush, and however you’re feeling, take time to notice, to be part of nature around you. I promise, you’ll will feel better for it