The restrictive stay-at-home measures of the last year have had a major impact on people's mental health. Many recent studies have shown how those living in strict lockdowns faced a greater risk of anxiety and depression compared to those living under more relaxed rules.
However, with the current increasing roll-out of vaccinations, there’s now light at the end of the tunnel and a return to the most simple way to beat the blues — Getting outside and embracing mother nature.
It’s a well-known fact that getting outdoors in nature can protect people’s health and build resilience. From regulating emotions to staving off cancer cells, time spent getting our green on is actually time spent building up emotional and physiological strength. Add in the fact that we’re typically active when outdoors — and also that observing the wonders of nature makes us more mindful of the world — and we can chuck in physical and spiritual benefits of the great outdoors too.
But it’s not just the actions we take when we’re living large in the natural world. According to Philippa Bassett, nature herself has a few tricks up her sleeve that enhance our well-being and help keep depression at bay.
Taking a Forest Bath
Bassett is Head of Communications at the Forest Bathing Institute in England, UK, an organization aligned with the Japanese practice of forest bathing (known as "Shinrin-yoku"). The Institute leads courses in this ancient Asian discipline, providing Forest Bathing+ guided, nature-therapy sessions for both the public and the National Health Service (NHS), and is in discussion with 11 British universities to conduct further UK-based scientific research into the physiological health benefits of Forest Bathing+.
“Forest Bathing+ is a slow, mindful walk in woodland or semi-ancient woodland under the canopy of the trees, which helps to promote a deep sense of calm and quiet,” Bassett said. “By spending contemplative time in the forest, inhaling the oxygen rich air, this helps the body to relax. Forest Bathing+ is underpinned by a mindfulness practice, so focusing on each of the senses enables you to take time to notice what is going on around you. It helps you to slow down and be more aware of your environment.”
The more diverse the ecosystem of the forest or woodland environment, the higher the beneficial chemical content in the air. Trees expel chemicals known as phytoncides that help them to fight off diseases. But when inhaled or absorbed by the skin, these chemicals are highly beneficial for our health and wellbeing too. They assist in boosting our immune system and natural killer (NK) cell count. They support the nervous and endocrine systems and have a positive effect on the Limbic system of the brain, which helps to control our emotions and senses.
“Phytoncides can be trapped in the soil by leaf litter when it’s dry in the forest,” she said. “But when it rains, they burst forth and you can benefit by inhaling them more deeply. In warmer weather, we absorb the phytoncides through our skin as often we may be wearing a t-shirt, so our skin is exposed to them.”
Along with building a stronger immune system, forest bathing has other great health benefits. Bassett explained that the practice can help reduce cortisol levels, which in turn enhances your mood and kicks oxidative stress to the curb, leading to less fatigue, greater energy, and sharper cognitive abilities.
Making Use of the Senses
Utilizing all five senses is an important part of the forest bathing practice that Bassett and the team at The Forest Bathing Institute promote.
“By incorporating a mindfulness-based practice whereby we take one sense at a time, we are able to become more aware of our surroundings," Bassett said. "This in turn helps us to become more present. The forest offers us a lot of diversity and richness to draw on, so each one of us is able to experience something special. You might notice the different shades of green, the interplay between light and shade, or tune into the birdsong or sound of the wind rustling through the tree canopy.”
Related: 4 Mindfulness Tips for the Mountains
“And when you are focused on one sense, slowing down, inhaling the forest air, you are able to move from the sympathetic nervous system — the one that initiates ‘fight or flight' — to the parasympathetic nervous system — the one that has a more therapeutic, regenerative effect on the body, think ‘soothing system,'" she said. "This improves Heart Rate Variability (HRV), leading to reduced anxiety and stress — lifting depression.”
Indeed, in a recent study The Forest Bathing Institute conducted in partnership with the University of Derby, 57 percent of participants in their Forest Bathing+ program showed increased HRV. A measure of good balance in the nervous system, HRV shows that the body is in its rest and recuperative state, indicating good cardiovascular health.
Top Tips to Engage with Nature
So, with the shelter-at-home restrictions starting to ease, Bassett recommends making the most of whatever natural environments are within your local area or the travel area you’re limited to.
1. Head for the Hills
Parks, trails, hill walks, and local woodlands are wonderful choices if you have them close by. If not, Bassett said, even walking down a tree-lined avenue in your town can be healing if you take the time to observe the trees, the new green leaves, the spring blossom, the pattern and texture of the bark, and what’s going on within and around them.
2. Take Up Gardening — Even in Your Window
“Getting into your garden — if you have one — and planting flowers, herbs, or vegetables helps you to build that connection with nature, as can planting a window box or balcony box," she said. "Whether you’re outside or tending to plants at your window, take time to notice them in more detail. Notice the patterns of the leaves, the texture, shapes, and colors. You might want to do some deep breathing exercises to slow your breath, and inhale in a more controlled way, taking in the aromas and helping to calm your nervous system.”
3. (Smelling) an Onion a Day Keeps the Doctor Away
Various spices and plants such as onions and garlic also give off phytoncides, so think about adding them to your garden or balcony box if you’re not in close proximity to woodlands.
4. Step Outside Every Day
Even if you live in a built-up urban area, Bassett said that just stepping outdoors once a day, feeling the air on your skin, and making the effort to notice some greenery and nature in your neighborhood — including the sound of birds singing — will help to elevate your mood.
It’s been an extraordinary year, Bassett said, a year in which — because of the lockdowns and travel restrictions — people realized how much they missed being out in nature.
Re-engaging, then, with the great outdoors makes taking time to stop and smell the flowers (and the trees) all the more important. Not only can doing so remind us that we’re still part of the natural world, but it can also help us build up resilience now that we’re moving back to fully living in it again.