The nurturing effects of green spaces
It’s not new news that nature has a healing effect. Eastern medics, ancient societies and cultures across the globe have noted the beneficial role that contact with the natural world plays in our physical and mental wellbeing.
However, modern generations are experiencing significantly lower levels of daily contact with nature than their parent’s generation, with increased urbanisation and time spent indoors (the consequences of which for our wellbeing, are a topic of great interest to many scientific and political communities). We, as a society, are only recently rediscovering some of the ancient wisdom and putting it into practice to help us cope with the stresses and adversity of contemporary lifestyles.
As an enthusiastic lover of green spaces, forests and seascapes, as well as being passionate about human wellbeing, I’ve been really interested in the resurgence of investment in nature for our health. In the UK for example, there has been an uptick over recent years in the creation of community allotments, forest schools for primary aged children, bare-foot walks in parks and woodlands and quality green spaces at hospitals (notably the televised project to create a healing garden at Great Ormond Street in London in 2016, of which I was incredibly proud that my cousin and his garden design business, were a part).
Even more fascinating and exciting, is that traditional medicine has started to sit up and take notice of the power of nature and what it might offer in terms of alternative therapies. Many GPs in the UK will now prescribe ‘green medicine’ or ecotherapy, as it is also known, as part of a wider programme of treatment where perhaps traditional drug-based therapies have been ineffective. One brilliant example of this is the Blackthorn Trust in Kent, UK, where gardening is used for patients with depressive disorders, anxiety or chronic pain. Participants on the scheme describe how getting close to the plants and getting their hands into the soil creates a feeling of being grounded and connected. Gardening has proved incredibly effective as a therapy for a range of conditions at the project.
Journalist Florence Williams, in her recent book, ‘The Nature Fix’, describes her investigations into the positive effects nature has on our brains. Drawing on recent research and the Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing), Florence notes how spending time outdoors and in green spaces can make us happier and healthier. Forest Bathing is simply about slowing down and making a ‘5 senses connection’ with nature – taking in the sounds of the leaves rustling in the trees; the smell of the pine sap in the air or the woody scent of the forest floor; noticing rays of sunlight dappling through the tree branches; the feeling of your hands on tree bark or your toes in a cool stream and the taste of the damp, cool air as you breathe it in.
Dr Qing Li, Shinrin-Yoku researcher, describes the benefits of forest bathing as bringing relaxation, calm and present-mindedness, much like the practice of mindfulness. In fact, forest bathing could be considered a mindful practice, since it involves paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment, without judgement – the key features of mindfulness according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction). The Japanese government have been so convinced of the physical and mental health benefits of Shinrin-Yoku, that they intend to designate 100 Forest Therapy sites in Japan within 10 years.
Environmental Psychologists note that experiences in nature tend to increase our positive affect (mood) and decrease our negative feelings, particularly when we interact with environments which have been favorable for our survival as a species, such as open grasslands and waterscapes. The experience of interacting with the natural landscape can be restoring, reinvigorating and revitalising. Some researchers suggest this is because being in natural surroundings is less taxing for our mental attention and concentration levels and so allows this capability to replenish itself. Other noted benefits of exposure to nature are lower blood pressure, decreased heart rate, lower stress levels and improved self-esteem. When combining ecotherapy with mindfulness, such as with a mindful forest walk, additional benefits associated with mindfulness practice could also be possible – for example, increased resilience, decreased depressive symptoms, reduced anxiety and improved impulse-control.
So how can we introduce a little more nature into our own lives?
We don’t need to move to the countryside or become park rangers or gardeners (although bigger lifestyle changes may be the perfect tonic for some). Small, regular ‘nudges’ may be all we need to see an improvement in our wellbeing.
It may be, like many in the UK have done recently, that we take the time to invest in our gardens – sowing seeds, growing vegetables, planting shrubs or revitalising a tired lawn. If we don’t have a garden, tending to pots on a balcony or window ledge can still allow us to be ‘green-fingered’, connecting and grounding us as we nurture and care for our plants and seedlings. Or we could consider taking on an allotment or volunteering at a community garden.
As physical distancing rules are relaxed (at least in some places), this may allow us to take a walk through parklands, nature reserves, woodlands or wetlands again. Try to make these mindful experiences, using all 5 senses to be present and engage with the surroundings.
The trick is to build in some time, even if only 10 minutes, for a daily connection with nature, so that it becomes a positive health habit – just like brushing our teeth or taking our vitamins. Whatever we choose should be something that’s enjoyable for us – that way, we are more likely to keep doing it and continuing to reap the rewards over the long term!
If we all take a little time to nurture nature, it will nurture us in return.
Bratman, G.N, Hamilton, J.P., and Daily G.C. (2012). The impacts of nature experience on human cognitive function and mental health.
Li, Q., (2018). Forest Bathing Is Great for Your Health. Here’s How to Do It. Time Magazine.
Williams, F, (2017). The Nature Fix. WW Norton & Co. New York