Imagine you are working for long hours in the city, up to your neck in deadlines, highly stressed and burnt out. You are not sleeping well, and this feeds into a vicious cycle as you have barely got enough energy to get going. In desperation, you go to a health care professional, expecting to get prescribed some sleep medication. Instead, you get a prescription to go for a walk in the woods.
The Nature on Prescription Handbook, developed by the University of Exeter and used by social prescribers in the UK states “The evidence linking exposure to natu
ral environments to improvements in mental health underpins nature-based offerings as a core referral option in social prescribing. There is a long and rich history of nature being used as a therapeutic tool or setting to support mental health by a variety of communities of practice” (Nature on Prescription Handbook, Exeter University).
In Japan, for example, forest bathing has been popular since the 1980s as a tool to reconnect to nature, reduce stress levels, and protect the forests. In Wicklow, Aisling Plunkett of Arc Healing facilitates forest bathing sessions, where participants can engage in a form of mindful connection with the sights, sounds and textures of the forest and are provided an opportunity to reflect on their experience.
There is ample evidence to support the importance of green and blue spaces on promoting mental health. A 2016 research in Wellington, New Zealand for instance, showed that people with opportunities to look at bodies of water have lower levels of stress than those unable to do so. Another Harvard study involving 108,630 women revealed how living in or near green spaces has a positive impact on mental health and longevity. Another study in the UK showed that city dwellers tend to have higher life satisfaction, sense of worth and happiness if they live within 300 yards of a park or a nature reserve.
Nature-based therapy can counter stress and anxiety, lower adrenaline levels, aid sleep and improve focus and concentration. It has also been linked to better immune function, and improved cardiovascular and respiratory systems.
Here area few simple ways that nature can alleviate your mood:
Walk among plants and trees. This will expose you to chemicals called phytoncides which decrease blood pressure and pulse rate, and decrease cortisol levels, stress hormones that cause anxiety and depression.
Pay attention to the veins of the leaves or other botanical details. This can help you feel more relaxed. Some areas of the brains are stimulated by fractals: patterns that repeat in nature.
Get down on all fours, work in the garden or sniff the soil. When we inhale a bit of the cell wall of such soil microorganisms as mycobacterium vaccae, the brain releases serotonin neurotransmitters that control mood—which is how anti-depressants work.
Spend time next to the water. Its sound reduces cortisol levels and helps us relax. Even vide clips of water, when shown to participants, can shift their brain activity from a flight or flight mode to a rest and relaxation mode.
Look at birds and wildlife. When we look at something beautiful or awe inspiring, or when we find something we are looking for, our bodies release dopamine, positive neurotransmitters that improve our mood and help us feel motivated.
Fullam, James, et. Al. (2021). A Handbook for Nature on Prescription to Promote Mental Health. European Centre for Environment and Human Health and University of Exeter College of Medicine and Health.
BBC. Five Simple Ways Nature can help your mood. Accessed on 25 September 2022 at https://fr-fr.facebook.com/BBCSounds/videos/5-simple-ways-nature-can-help-your-mood-%EF%B8%8F/1284491111905507/
Pawlowski, A. (2016) Blue Spaces beat green spaces when it comes to mental health, study finds. Today. Accessed on 25 September 2022 at https://www.today.com/health/blue-spaces-beat-green-spaces-when-it-comes-mental-health-t90601.
Plunkett, Aisling. (2022). Forest Bathing. Accessed on 25 September 2022 at https://archealing.ie/celtic-forest-bathing/.