The natural remedy: Why nature is good for our mental health
Spring is here, the last of the snow is receding and nature is beginning to thrive again. And while the Easter bank holiday provides an opportunity to get a little fresh air, getting out and about is more difficult if you’re feeling flat.
But spending some time with nature has a number of mental health benefits, and may help to lift your mood. Here’s the science behind this ‘natural’ remedy.
The science of sunshine
While over-exposure to UV rays comes with health risks, getting some natural sunlight is important. Studies have found that night shift workers who get very little daylight may produce less melatonin. Melatonin imbalances can affect the mood cause seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
In addition, sunlight is vital for the production of Vitamin D. It is thought that, particularly in winter, those who live in northern Europe don’t produce enough of it. A lack of Vitamin D has been reported to cause fatigue and correlate strongly with depression.
Nature and mindfulness
Mindfulness aims to help us improve our mental wellbeing by focusing on the world around us. Instead of existing ‘in our own heads’, mindfulness encourages us to reconnect with our senses. You can practice mindfulness anywhere, but natural settings are particularly effective in grounding us in the here and now.
The bustle of everyday life, buzzing phones, TV screens and excessive noise can leave us over-stimulated. In nature, you’re more likely to listen to your breathing, and become aware of the movement of your body. You smell plants and earth, hear birdsong – things that ground you in a more primitive state, away from the complexities of modern life.
Changing your perspective in this way can give you respite from your worries, allowing you time to recharge your batteries, and simply exist in the moment.
Walking for mental health
Exercise releases chemicals in our bodies that improve our mood. But depression can make it hard to manage the basics of day-to-day life, never mind donning a pair of sweat pants and going for a jog.
Recently, blogger Jake Tyler (pictured above) set out to show us that walking with depression is not only possible, but also highly therapeutic. He told the BBC how a little walking each day led to an epic countryside adventure for him: “I started walking the dog every day and realised how much I love being outside. That’s when I came up with this little fantasy of walking around Great Britain.”
In a blog post, he highlights the combined benefit of exercise and being in the presence of nature: “The good thing about walking in the countryside is that you’re forced to address certain thoughts and, generally, if I think about them for long enough I can begin to make sense of them. I walked 13 miles along the Pennine Way today and for the most part, I thought clearly.
As great as walking, running, whatever, is for your mental health it’s unlikely to sort out your problems entirely. What it can do, I’ve noticed, is give you time to process certain things in an environment that’s free of synthetic distraction.”
Little by little
You don’t have to embark on a cross-country adventure to feel the benefits of nature. Even a walk around your local park or an afternoon of gardening is a step in the right direction. Small breaks away from the bustle of daily life can switch your focus and leave you feeling refreshed. Where will this weekend take you?
My Possible Self is an online self-help programme that helps reduce stress, anxiety and depression.