It has long been proven that nature has a beneficial effect on your mental health. After weeks, if not months, cooped up inside as part of the global lockdown – now more than ever has our own mental health been such a priority. The World Health Organisation (WHO) have predicted that we are set for a global mental health crisis as an after effect of the Covid-19 pandemic. The lifting of restrictions across the world have taken into consideration the implications on our health of being indoors so much – it’s a balancing act weighing up the importance of both mental and physical health. The opening up of parks – especially in urban areas – appears to have been one of the priorities as lockdown restrictions slowly start to ease.
Green space has huge benefits to our health. Alongside the clear benefits of breathing in clean air and getting a natural dose of vitamin D from sunlight – there are psychological benefits too. This is nothing new. Back in 1859 Florence Nightingale, in Notes on Nursing, wrote of her observations around the positive effect on her patients on viewing nature and a means to aid their recovery. Today, nature therapy is being prescribed by doctors across the world. From Japan to Shetland – time outdoors is prescribed for conditions such as diabetes, stress, mental health and heart diseases (as a supplement to other treatments).
Forest bathing, or the Japanese practice of shinrin yoku, is a great way to experience the benefits of being at one with nature. Put simply it is being calm and quiet, surrounded by trees. You can do it anywhere – just find a quiet spot, turn your phone off, take a couple of deep breaths and clear your mind of your day to day stresses and worries. Instead – relax and use your senses to really explore your surroundings. What can you hear? What can you see? What does it smell like? How does this environment make you feel? Keep your eyes open – seeing shades of green and blue help you relax more. Start with a length of time that you are comfortable with and then build it up – 2 hours is said to be the optimum length of time for a full forest bathing experience. You’ll start experiencing the benefits straight away – feeling a sense of calm come over you from just a few minutes surrounded by nature. Whilst you can go forest bathing on your own – it’s great with a guide. Our friend, The Eco Monkey, guides in person and virtual sessions.
Even in inner city locations you can still find oases of calm. Years ago I used to live in Wimbledon in south west London. In addition to Wimbledon Common on my doorstep there was also Cannizaro Park. Hidden away in the foliage, just beyond the well trodden path was a bench where I spent many an hour on a Sunday afternoon listening to the wind rustle the leaves and the sweet song of a chaffinch and blue tit. Despite being under the flight path into Heathrow Airport and in sight of the perpetually busy A3 – it was a place where I could escape the stresses of London life and just be.
It may be that you need go no further than your own back garden or patio to experience the benefits of being outside. Even if you’re surrounded by concrete – you’ll still feel the breeze against your skin, the sound of birdsong and just look up to see the sky. Even if you only have a postage stamp size space to call your own outside – a single potted plant will still attract bees and other insects and provide you with some greenery.
You don’t have to go outside to benefit from green space – house plants can help create that indoor oasis of calm, painting a feature wall a shade of green, utilising green soft furnishings or a view from a window of a tree or garden will also help. Interestingly a study was carried by Professor Roger Ulrich at a suburban hospital in Pennsylvania on the recovery time of patients in a hospital based on the view they had from their nearest window. All of the patients were recovering from gall bladder surgery between 1972 and 1981. One set of patients overlooked green space – the others had a brick wall. The patients had no option of where they went – they were assigned beds according to where one was available at the time. Those with the view onto green space required a shorter period of post operative care and took fewer moderate or strong analgesics during their recovery period.
Whilst nothing can beat the real thing – you can also bring the sound of nature into the comfort of your own home through various soundscapes available on all the main music streaming platforms and selected apps. The Calm app provides some great options for a natural soundtrack to help you meditate or sleep.
The concept of forest bathing can, of course, be transferred across to other environments too – anywhere that you can find peace to listen to the sounds of nature all around you. Perhaps it’s by a gentle stream, a stretch of river, the summit of a hill, the peak of a mountain or a beach listening to the sound of the waves crash on the shoreline. Allow the moment to take over your senses.
There is no question that green space is good for our health. No matter where you are in the world – should you be feeling low I’d urge you to take some time for yourself, escape to your nearest green space for a while and reap the benefits being there has to offer.
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