Environmental journalist Paul Bröker explores the many health benefits of spending time in nature.
From our first days at school, we are constantly reminded of the benefits of exercise. Then, when our teenage years arrive, some of us begin to think about why we keep fit. The most common justifications are keeping our weight in check (‘burning fat’), the benefits to our hearts and blood flow (‘get the heart / blood pumping!’) and helping us to relax and sleep (‘just letting off some steam’). Some of us then start to talk about endorphins and serotonin and how exercise can affect our happiness.
But what about that well known phrase ‘Just grabbing some fresh air’? Often absorbing this suspiciously clichéd recommendation, I have rarely stopped to think about how going outside might actually help me. City dwellers know well that the purer, cleaner air we find in the countryside is better for our bodies. But only until recently have we begun to speak seriously about how the great outdoors can affect the state of our minds.
Mental health problems are rising at an alarming rate here in the UK: one in four people in any given year will experience a significant mental health issue and we are experiencing record levels of anti-depressant prescriptions. Cognitive behavioural therapy and other psychoanalytic therapies are routines for many. The commonly suspected causes are our increasing connectedness and dependency on technology as well as our hectic daily lives amongst other things, dragging us to breaking point and overwhelming us.
– CONNECTING TO NATURE © PHILIPPE TOUPET
Green care, or ecotherapy, is one of the most recent methods we are turning to in order to soothe disturbed minds. It is also one of the most exciting. The main premise of green care is to use nature as an arena for a range of outdoor activities designed to cure our psychological troubles. In 2016, Natural England commissioned a report alongside Mind in order to explore the ways in which nature-based interventions may provide mental health care. The main three activities the report assesses are care farming, environmental conservation and social and therapeutic horticulture. The positive impacts were found to be far reaching: reductions in depression, anxiety and stress; improvements in dementia-related symptoms; boosts in self-esteem; an increased sense of peace and calm; an increased sense of security and safety. A part of these positive changes results from social contact and a feeling of inclusion. But contact with nature itself is also the source of many mental health benefits.
Hints of our attraction to nature and the wild are all around us. Popular television shows such as Planet Earth and Escape to the Country (my mum loves it) rave about our exciting and beautiful natural worlds, and daily references to peace and quiet demonstrate our innate desire for seeking calm. Reaching these fantastical oases, sources of inspiration for countless authors, musicians, and visual artists, is a popular human fascination, an elevating experience that ultimately feels good. Although Peter Stringer, in his book Environmental Interaction, does not necessarily believe that nature’s elements themselves – trees, snow, koalas –inherently benefit our psyche, the act of escaping the distressing activities of our daily grind does. Running away into the wild can be an excellent way of breaking away from the damaging impacts of technology and everyday life in general. We cannot feel jealousy or envy towards our peers if we are disconnected. No signal? All the better. Stuck up a mountain? Going to the pub for a drink with Clive is not an option worth deliberating about. It is easier to avoid the fear of missing out if we are physically removed from our usual surroundings. Retreating from our busy home lives, even just for a few days or even a few moments, also gives us time to recover and recharge and provides valuable respite from increasingly demanding routines.
– GARDENING: GOOD FOR BODY AND SOUL © BENJAMIN COMBS
The wild can also provide solitude. Not to be confused with loneliness, solitude can have real positive impacts on our minds. Henry David Thoreau wrote his book Walden while living alone in the woods of Massachusetts, reflecting on his isolation. As a transcendentalist, he felt connected with the elements of nature – blades of grass, flowers, crows – treating them as equals, therefore finding himself in fact surrounded: not lonely at all. While this state of mind is perhaps a stretch too far for most, some of his other observations are much more accessible. We are often significantly influenced – and made to feel anxious – by what and who is around us, what is said and what is done. We need time and space to think independently in order to reflect and be true to ourselves. Nature provides us with such a space. Virginia Woolf, who suffered from mental health issues, wrote in her 1921 essay A Room for One’s Own about the need for privacy away from the intrusion of others in order to stay mentally healthy. Again, we might find a moment of calm in nature, outside of our busy, bustling lives. The rise in meditation and mindfulness in the UK illustrates our growing appreciation for a bit of breathing and thinking space.
Of course, humans are inherently social beings and benefit enormously from cooperation and socialising. But allowing ourselves to be free from the shackles of everyday social pressures from time to time can be incredibly positive. What is more, time alone can make ensuing human connections more meaningful. Remember, finding solitude in the wild is for you and you only: you are away from the gaze and judgement of your surroundings. You do not need to justify your actions. Indeed, some resent Thoreau’s condescending tone of his arguably conceited, preachy account. Get naked and swim in a rock pool. Scream at the birds (politely, please). Declare your love for that oak tree on the hill. Laugh, cry, sing, dance, do nothing. You have a chance to do what you want and act how you want. It doesn’t matter: nobody’s watching and that’s the point.
But nature can provide more than just an escape and some peace. Research demonstrating that the green and living components of nature directly impact our mental health is on the rise. One study found that people viewing nature scenes had greater activity in their parasympathetic nervous system than those viewing city scenes. This is a subconscious part of the brain that helps us relax, bringing our heart rate down and our breathing rate down. Another study showed how the more awe-inspiring the image of nature a subject was shown, the more likely they were to forget their daily, petty concerns, contributing to stress and anxiety. We needn’t be on top of Mount Everest or in the heart of the Amazon rainforest to feel the direct benefits of nature on our minds. Everyday encounters with greenery, even in cities, help. A Harvard study by Peter James showed that living close to parks in American cities helped bring mortality rates down amongst a sample of 100,000 nurses.
– RICHMOND PARK, LONDON © SIMON WILKES
Water can also have a positive effect on mental well-being. A Guardian article from a couple of months back spoke of how regular cold water swimming could be used to treat depression and anxiety. While more evidence is needed, the theory is that adapting to the shock of cold water can help mollify your responses to everyday sources of stress. When I swim, the distracting sound of water rushing past my ears helps remove me from the outside world. Moving through water, relatively unfamiliar territory for humans, can help separate oneself from one’s usual environment. Visiting the seaside can also provoke certain beneficial reactions within your body. Sea air contains a relatively high proportion of negative hydrogen ions, which can help promote your serotonin levels, thus combatting depression and anxiety. These ions can also enhance your ability to absorb oxygen, which can in turn help you sleep better. These chemical bodily reactions are compelling reasons to find time to have a dip now and again. What is more, being in water also means you cannot take your phone in with you (not yet, anyway).
When I can, I try and make it to an Atlantic coastline to go surfing. Waiting for a wave, perhaps that perfect wave, is a paradoxical thrill, as you bob in the water when time seems to stop. You can hear your breath and the lapping of water around your arms in the calm. But you know that at some point very soon, waves will begin to form in the distance and will start surging towards you. They will either bring you down tumbling under the surface, or carry you gliding on the smooth surface of the ocean. This sense of unpredictability and the power of nature can have a profound effect on one’s outlook on life. Good mental health includes the capacity to move ‘outside’ of oneself, broadening your perspectives about people and your life in general. The appreciation that there are forces bigger than you out there can help with this; an unreliable coworker, or co-human, is a mere niggle in this impressive world. The Navy has started using surfing as a form of therapy to treat PTSD, depression and sleep problems amongst its personnel. Write to Freedom, a social project run by Caspar Walsh, aims to bring ex-offenders into nature to help them appreciate its powerful processes, their place within it and their effect on it through self reflection.
Some theorists even posit that we humans need nature: we have an evolutionary genetic attachment to it. This hypothesis is known as the biophilia hypothesis, originally introduced by Edward O Wilson in 1984. As a species, Homo sapiens’ separation from nature is relatively a very recent phenomenon in the grand scheme of our 300,000-year history, with the birth of the industrial revolution resulting in a collective flocking to urban areas, 250 years ago. In evolutionary terms, as a group we have not had time to adapt to this change. We therefore have a built-in desire within our DNA to return to nature. When we consider our thousands of subconscious, animalistic responses on a daily basis, this hypothesis seems plausible.
– OCEAN SURF © JEREMY BISHOP
We still have some way to go before nature’s healing processes can be fully accepted and appreciated. Measuring the impact of nature on mental health is difficult: 95% of our brain processes are undertaken by its subconscious, which is incredibly hard to study. We also need to establish more standardised measures of effectiveness, and more studies are needed to affirm the links between experiencing the natural world and mental health. Universal access to nature needs to be addressed. Natural England’s Outdoors for All programme is beginning to help improve access for a range of people, including those from deprived areas, those with mental health problems and disabilities, and the elderly. We also need to continue breaking down the ingrained cultural taboo still prevalent with regard to mental health, as well as continue improving our access to professional help. The NHS’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme was launched this year to tackle this issue. But it is important to note that one does not need to have been diagnosed to experience the mental health benefits of the natural world; we could all do with some exposure to the elements.
A weekend in November, I went to visit a friend in Anglesey, north Wales. The stormy Irish Sea winds were violently combing the marram grass on the crests of the dunes, sand swirling in cold, intermittent gusts. The sea was rough, messy waves crashing in haphazard fashion. But the sun was shining, and walking around the headland we stumbled across a secluded oasis of calm. We were protected from the sea wind and the water rippled peacefully before a hazy backdrop of mountains, stoically watching over the bay in the distance. This was to be our swimming spot. Upon first contact, the water felt like it was immediately bruising the ankles, but once my body and head were fully under, it was a whole other sensation. After about a minute underwater, I decided that was enough for me. There is no two ways about it: it was very, very cold. But as I left the water, all of my skin came alive in a wave of warm tingling and I stood looking across the inlet with the sun gently warming my face, feeling wholly energised. Fetching our towels, a group of ramblers walked by. One of them quipped: ‘Did you just go for a swim? So good for the mental health, that’. The idea of the benefits of contact with nature is not new, but it is spreading fast. Go on, try it for yourself. Oh: did I mention that it’s free?