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Green Minds: How Nature Affects Our Mental Health

I have always loved spending time in nature; be that through environmental fieldwork, hiking within AONBs (Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty), or chilling out in the garden. I am also highly lucky in that nature is very much on my doorstep; not only do I have a garden to go out in but I also live in a rural area with a river nearby. Though, for many of us, the harsh reality is that life can get in the way and so we can struggle to get out into nature on a regular basis - even if it is easily accessible to us. However, you may want to actively prioritise going out into nature, as getting into Mother Nature may be more valuable than what you may initially think...


Hiking in Dartmoor National Park
Hiking in Dartmoor National Park (AONB)

The intrinsic value of nature is highly placed not only in indigenous cultures but also in other traditional practices as well. One such nature-based practice is known as Shinrin-Yoku (森林浴 in Japanese) - which can roughly be translated to ‘forest bathing’. Shinrin-Yoku sees individuals immersing themselves within nature and intentionally focusing on their senses; what they can see, touch, taste, smell, and hear. Going for walks, meditating, or even doing yoga in nature are just some of the ways people practice forest bathing. The practice - though having been performed for hundreds of years - was formally introduced to Japan in the 1980s by the Agency of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to encourage people to visit forests, the main selling points being health reasons and advocating for the protection of forests.


Research shows that engaging in forest bathing has positive health benefits, both on a physical and psychological level; for example, better mental health, and reduction of asthma symptoms. One of the least surprising health benefits of forest bathing - that goes hand in hand with mental health - is reduction in blood pressure and heart rate.

 

A recent discovery found that older adults - aged between 65 and 83 - who engage in forest bathing at least once a week, are more likely to associate the activity with pleasure, and not only feel socially supported, but also feel that they have a purpose in life.


Since its introduction, the practice has turned into a somewhat global movement. Here in the UK, The Woodland Trust - a woodland conservation charity - has been urging the government to prescribe nature as a non-medical therapy for well-being across the NHS since 2019.

 

Office of National Statistics, 2020

If I have not convinced you to run outside this minute, then maybe this new information regarding your memory will do the trick! A recent study found that in the UK individuals who live in rural areas have a better memory than those living in urban areas, which the researchers have suggested could be due to the ability of individuals to access green spaces. Although London has over 3000 parks, green space only covers 18% of the area making the accessibility of green space significantly lower than in other places within the UK. Considering that more than 1 in 5 London households do not have a garden - the UK average being 1 in 8 - and the shortage of green space, Londoners are severely lacking in the nature department; so not only can this have an impact on memory but also mental health of an individual. 


Access to these green spaces was made somewhat harder during the pandemic. Many of us during lockdown decided to make use of the UK government guidelines that allowed us to go out to exercise once per day to the fullest extent; with many people taking the opportunity to go on a walk. Interestingly, data from Strava - the exercise app - shows that during this period a significant number of us took up walking; with London and the South East seeing over a sixfold increase!


The pandemic has helped highlight that getting outside may not always be possible, but even if it is not, there are still ways you can bring nature into your home. One of the easiest ways to do this is through the use of houseplants. Houseplants not only make an attractive piece of home décor, but they have also been shown to have health benefits. Studies have shown that just their mere presence can reduce stress, lower blood pressure and can increase academic achievement. For those of you who currently do not have plants in your home perhaps you may think of purchasing one; to those of you who are proud "plant parents" - like myself - here's another excuse you can use for buying another.


Houseplants + Health Benefits = +1 Excuse for Buying New Plants

You may have noticed an uptick in social media posts that involve going into nature, with individuals recording themselves going for hikes, visiting local nature reserves and just generally experiencing nature. One of the most memorable trends to come out of this is the "Going on a stupid walk for my stupid mental health" trend which hit TikTok in December 2021, with users stomping their way across the screen to catchy music seemingly both annoyed at going outside and yet determined to go on a walk for their mental health. This movement quickly went viral and became known as the "Going on a stupid walk for my stupid mental health" trend.

 

Since starting this article you’ll be pleased to note that not only have I purchased another plant to add to my growing bedroom forest, but I have also set myself a challenge to get out into nature more often. I challenge you to take your health into your own hands! What have you got to lose?


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