Many of us have lost our connection with nature, spending most of our time indoors, at home, in an office or in a car. Sometimes even having lunchbreak seems luxurious – most of us bolt food down at our desks so as not to miss a minute of the working day. However as humans we aren’t meant to spend so much time indoors. Our ancestors were hunter-gatherers spending most of their time outdoors amongst trees, by water, studying plants and animals, in all seasons and weather. Could our health and wellbeing be suffering because we spend less time outdoors? There are many powerful reasons why we should down tools and step outside once a day so this week try and use your lunchbreak to get outside.
Being outside can help your productivity
We often think we don’t have time to take a proper break during the working day but having a break outside can make all the difference to your productivity and give you perspective on a work issue. Researchers found that time spent in nature can renew our attention spans when they are flagging after a hard day’s work or an extended period staring at a screen – this is known as Attention Restoration Therapy (ART). This is supported by research from the University of Madrid and Norweigan University of Life Sciences that seeing natural landscapes can speed up recovery from stress or mental fatigue.
Contact with nature reduces anxiety and stress
Being anxious, stressed or depression can mean you don’t want to go outside, preferring to hunker down indoors. Whilst this may be your natural instinct, going outside and being with nature can reduce your anxiety and stress. There is scientific evidence that we feel calmer when we look at trees for example, this is known as biophilia. Forest bathing, the Japanese practice of spending time slowly and quietly in forests, is proven to lower the stress hormones of cortisol and adrenalin, suppresses the fight or flight instinct, lowers blood pressure, boosts the immune system and improves sleep. Not only that but the activity of white blood cells known as natural killer (NK) cells increases when humans spend time in woods. You don’t have to visit a wood or forest every day – these biochemical benefits last for up to a month.
In addition there is evidence that exercise outside can be more effective than antidepressants for those with less severe mental illness and research from the University of Exeter showed that the presence of birds in a landscape can help to lift depression. It is also well known that time spent with animals, or gardening has a positive impact on your mental health.
Time outside can effect the chemical make up of our brain
There are several physiological and neurological changes that take place when we go outside which can boost the happiness chemicals in our brain. Serotonin is a compound that carries signals between nerve cells in our brain, levels and there is link between the levels of serotonin in our brain and our mood. Time spent in the natural world and particularly in sunlight triggers an increase in serotonin. Exploring a new environment outside and foraging, collecting shells, leaves, blackberries, releases dopamine which helps regulate movement, attention, learning, and emotional responses. Cold water swimming is shown to boost serotonin, oxytocin (the love hormone) and endorphins which reduces pain relieve stress and enhance pleasure. It also helps to control our fight or flight instinct.
Nature can help you learn mindfulness
Meditation, or mindfulness, is proven to reduce stress, however some find it hard to get to grips with. Nature offers many ways to be mindful without even realising, whether its bird watching in your garden, watching a sunrise or sunset, looking at a bee buzz round a flower, star-gazing at night or listening to the sound of the sea these are all ways to help you be calm and still and focus on the present moment which will help you maintain good mental health and wellbeing and keep stress at bay.
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Resources and useful links
Wild Remedy by Emma Mitchell
The Natural Health Service by Isabel Harman
Mental Health Foundation Thriving with Nature
Nature for Health and Wellbeing The Wildlife Trusts
RHS: How gardening can help mental health and wellbeing
Thrive: the gardening for health charity
Forestry Commission: Forests for Wellbeing