International Day of Forests is on 21 March and this year’s theme is Forests and Sustainable Cities. The day #internationaldayofforests is a great opportunity for us to look at nature as a healer, and how it can help, heal and protect us.
Nature as a healer
We instinctively know that spending time in nature is great for both the body and mind, but now a growing body of research suggests that it can benefit our mental health.
According to researchers, a lack of exposure to natural surroundings may be one of the causes behind many modern ills; including depressive symptoms and anxiety attacks.
One study from The University of Exeter Medical School in England looked at the mental health data of 10,000 city dwellers and used mapping to track where the subjects had lived over the past 18 years. The findings suggested that people living near urban green space reported less mental distress. A second study from 2009, found a lower incidence of 15 diseases, including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines in people who lived within a half mile of green space.
Another study compared a 50-minute walk in a city environment to a nature walk. A nature walk decreased the activity in an area of the brain linked to the risk of mental illness. Nature walks have also been found to reduce rumination – the negative thoughts that people return to over and over, which will be familiar to anyone suffering from anxiety.
With this knowledge, doctors are increasingly prescribing trips to the park for a range of conditions, including anxiety, depression and stress. In some countries, “exposure to nature” is a core component of therapy and it’s even spawning new fields like ecopsychology.
This growing body of evidence shows that time spent outdoors can:
- reduce stress levels
- lessen symptoms of depression
- reduce anxiety
- lower blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension
- lower production of stress hormones such as cortisol.
Nature as a healer – around the world
With the knowledge that urban green spaces and forests encourage active and healthy lifestyles, provide a place for people to socialise, and improve mental health, governments around the world are taking notice and promoting nature experiences as a public health policy.
Nature as a healer – Finland
In Finland, government-funded researchers asked thousands of people to rate their moods and stress levels after visiting both natural and urban areas. Based on that study, the team at the Natural Resources Institute Finland recommended a minimum nature dose of five hours a month, with several short visits a week. They reported that a 40 to 50-minute walk was enough for physiological and mood changes to take place. They even designed six “power trails” that encourage walking, mindfulness, and reflection, with signs quoting sayings like, “Squat down and touch a plant”.
Nature as a healer – Switzerland
In a small suburb of Zurich, Switzerland, children spend the majority of their school day in the woods, regardless of the weather. Known locally as the “forest kindergarten” they’re able to explore and learn whittling and den-building. Supporters say these schools build self-confidence and foster an independent spirit.
Nature as a healer – South Korea
Many South Korean’s suffer from work stress and long working hours. A survey commissioned by Samsung reported 70% of people said their jobs made them depressed. In attempting to address this, the South Korean government embraced the medicalisation of nature and built “healing forests” near every major town. Each healing forest offers programs from meditation to woodcrafts. There is also a government-run “happy train” that takes children who have experienced bullying into the woods for two days of camping.
Nature as a healer – How can you spend more time in nature?
The great news is that it’s easy to experience a dose of all mother nature provides, by:
- Packing a backpack and heading for the hills
- Preparing a picnic basket and visiting a local park
- Go walking on the beach
- Organising a camping trip with your mates
- Walking the dog in some nice natural surrounds
- Laying on the grass and watching the clouds float by
- Taking up gardening or sitting quietly in your garden
- Visiting a forest. Check out this article from Australian Geographic about Australia’s diverse forests.
The more time spent in nature, the more balanced you will feel. Nature provides great stress relief by enabling us to remove ourselves from the things that cause us stress in the first place.
So if you’re struggling with depression or anxiety, visit a forest and focus your senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch on our natural surroundings. Walk barefoot, sleep outdoors in a swag, collect shells or unusual pieces of wood, and breathe in the fresh air.
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