The awe-inspiring and healing power of nature
Reflecting back on this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, I am extraordinarily grateful for the opportunity, to learn more about an aspect of our wellbeing which we do not talk enough about: nature. The theme of nature was chosen because being in nature is an effective way of supporting positive mental health and protecting our wellbeing. When I started reading into the research surrounding nature’s influence on our mental health, I was anticipating scientific papers focused on nature’s ability to ground us and captivate our attention in a positive way. I was perhaps expecting to read about how trees provide us with oxygen to breathe and how the land provides nourishment through the food that we eat and the water that we drink.
However, I hadn’t anticipated learning about the deep-rooted connection that we, as humans, appear to have with nature and how it is intrinsically connected to our mental health and our ability to flourish. I find it truly awe-inspired that just being in the presence of nature can reduce our levels of stress, even if we’re only observing nature in a photograph. Some fascinating studies have found that simply seeing a picture of nature can slow our heart rate and reduce our levels of stress.
That doesn’t mean that we do not benefit from immersing ourselves in nature, far from it. However, it does mean that our connection with nature runs so deeply, and is so intimately intertwined within our DNA, that we can reap its benefits by simply imagining its presence. One study found a correlation between how quickly someone recovers from a major operation and the view from their hospital bed window. Those with a view of nature needed less time in hospital than those whose window looked out onto the wall of the adjacent building. Those with a view of nature also required half the amount of strong pain-relieving medication.
It seems that nature naturally orientates us, grounds us and helps to calm an over-taxed nervous system. For example, we all know the benefits of walking. However, what most of us don’t realise is that where we walk matters, a lot. Several studies have found that going for a 15-minute walk has greater beneficial effects when it involves walking through a forest than on a city street. Researchers found that nature walks slow our heart rate, reduce our blood pressure and lower levels of circulating cortisol. As a result, people feel less anxious, less irritable and less depressed.
While a 15-minute walk in nature is proven to reduce our stress levels, a Japanese tradition known as shinrin-yoku established in the 1980s, has even greater beneficial effects. In Japanese, Shinrin means ‘forest’ and Yoku means ‘bath’. So shinrin-yoku literally means bathing in the forest atmosphere or taking in the forest through our senses. It transpires that when people are immersed in a forest for several days and nights, they experience a significant reduction in stress, an improvement in sleep and a significant (50%) increase in natural killer cell activity (natural killer cells are crucial for containing viral infections and detecting and controlling early signs of cancer).
A significant part of these beneficial effects is thought to result from the inhalation of volatile organic compounds called Phytoncides. Phytoncides are emitted by plants and trees to help protect themselves from harmful insects, rot and infection. While the organic compounds are helpful to trees, it transpires that they are also extremely beneficial to human beings. The main reason for their beneficial effect in humans, is thought to be due do their anti-inflammatory properties, which reduce both stress and inflammation across the brain and body.
Outside of a forest setting we can still benefit from the potent effects of phytoncides by diffusing essential oils. Researcher Dr Qing Lee used essential oils to demonstrate the potent effects of phytoncides on human stress levels and levels of NK Activity. In one experiment he recruited participants to spend three nights in an urban hotel. During the day the participants were required to go about their usual daily activities, only retreating to the hotel in the evenings to sleep. The hotel rooms were prepared with diffusers to release hinoki stem oil.
Dr Li and his team measured levels of NK Cell activity which, like they did in the forest, increased significantly. They also found a significant reduction in the levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline in the urine samples they took, similar to the levels that were found in those engaging in shinrin-yoku in an actual forest. It’s not just the phytoncides emitted from trees and plants that account for the anti-inflammatory and stress reducing effects of nature on human health. Trees and plants in cities also have the capacity to capture toxic particulate matter emitted from diesel cars and factories, which typically cause unwanted inflammation.
Aside from forest bathing, research is also pointing towards the stress reducing effects of cold-water bathing. There is mounting evidence that by immersing ourselves in cold water for short periods of time, whether in a pond, a lake or the sea (even a cold shower counts), we become more resilient to similar stress-inducing situations in the future. However, the benefits do not stop with becoming more resilient to cold water alone. There appears to be an element of cross-adaptation, which makes us more resilient to stressful situations more generally.
Nature has so many awe-inspiring and healing facets, it would take an entire book to capture them all. However, I hope that this article has given you a glimpse into how nature can help maintain and bolster our mental (and physical) health in a variety of different ways.
Effortless ways to re-engage with nature
If you're looking for easy ways to re-engage with nature, you don't have to look to far. Below are five easy tips to harness some of the amazing stress-reducing benefits of nature.
Choose a picture of nature for your computer screensaver
Aim to spend at least 15-minutes each day walking in nature
When out walking, aim to notice the trees and other aspects of nature in a more mindful way
Bring nature into your home with some pot plants or by diffusing essential oils
Take the opportunity at weekends to spend at least a couple of hours surrounded by nature