When life gets too much, most of us try to get away from it all. Some might head to the pub, play football or knit a jumper. But if you really want to take a break and restore, a dose of nature might be the best tonic – spending time in natural environments has been shown to boost physical and mental health.
Even just listening to the sounds of nature could help us to relax, an idea being explored in a new experiment launched by Radio 4 as a study accompanying a new nine-part futuristic eco-drama called Forest 404.
Alex Smalley, a PhD researcher working on the Forest 404 experiment, gives his top tips on how to make the most of the stress-busting benefits of nature, no matter how much time you do – or think you don’t – have…
1. Dive in
If you’re lucky enough to live near the countryside or coast, there’s nothing like getting out for a walk, cycle, run or swim. These kinds of natural environments can promote physical activity; so-called “green exercise” has been shown to improve people’s self-esteem and mood.
But contact with nature can happen in many other ways too, and spending time in your garden or local park can be just as good. These natural spaces can reduce stress and anxiety, help us sleep better, and boost pro-social behaviours. Evidence is mounting and practitioners are taking note; doctors in Shetland can now prescribe “a dose of nature” to their patients, with similar trials recently taking place in Cornwall.
2. Go green
In Japan, the practice of shinrin yoku – literally, “forest bathing” – makes a good case for taking a walk through your local woodland. Researchers there have found that spending time just taking in the forest atmosphere can lower the stress hormone cortisol, decrease blood pressure and calm pulse rates. In the UK, studies have shown that urban parks and gardens can provide long-lasting impacts on mental health; and that larger areas of green space could act as a buffer against stressful events.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about how these mechanisms work, but nature’s ability to provide a feeling of calm fascination, as well as a sense of being away from day-to-day activities, seems to be the key.
3. Is blue best?
Medics were prescribing convalescence by the sea as far back as the 18th century, but it’s only been in the last decade that evidence for a “blue health” effect has emerged, with studies showing that people who live close to the coast tend to have better health and higher life satisfaction than those who reside inland. Data suggests that people in the UK tend to be happiest when they are by the coast, and research has directly pitted green spaces (like the countryside) against rivers, lakes and the ocean. Blue spaces repeatedly come out on top but there might also be a sweet spot; one study suggested that a scene consisting of one-third green and two-thirds blue was most preferred. People make over 500m visits to England’s blue spaces each year, so you’ll be in good company if you venture out.
4. Bring the outside in
Many of us don’t have access to a natural environment, or might have difficulty getting outside for other reasons. Fortunately, quite a bit of evidence suggests that simply having a view of nature, whether real or digital, can deliver similar benefits. One seminal study from the 1980s found that patients could recover from surgery more quickly if their window provided views of nature, and researchers have used pictures and videos of natural settings to demonstrate a range of other positive effects, from improved mood to an enhanced ability to complete complex tasks.
Getting out to your local aquarium has also been shown to boost wellbeing, and watching nature programmes such as Planet Earth can elicit feelings of joy while reducing negative feelings like tiredness. So if you can’t get out, bring the outside in!
5. Listen up!
Much of the research into the effects of the natural environment on health and wellbeing has focused on vision. Yet interactions with nature are multi-sensory, with sound, smell and touch playing a vital role in our experience, particularly for people with visual impairments. Listening to birds singing, rivers flowing, or waves lapping can help people relax and restore, and the myriad videos of these soundscapes on YouTube demonstrate their potential power.
Feeling part of something greater than ourselves might just make us more altruistic and willing to help others.
But there’s still a lot we don’t know about what sounds people prefer, how they might impact wellbeing, and how best to harness their restorative potential. That’s where our Forest 404 experiment comes in – we want to understand how people across the UK respond to the sounds of nature and you can help us! Find out more and take part here.
6. Awesome experiences
A new area of research has started to suggest that awe-inspiring experiences can improve mood and, excitingly, make us less selfish. Nature is great at producing awe; watching a pod of orcas breaching; standing beneath a canopy of giant trees; or observing the view from a mountain top can all create a sense of wonder and amazement. By making us feel small and part of something greater than ourselves, these awesome experiences might just make us more altruistic and willing to help others.
While awe isn’t an easy feeling to elicit, new advances in virtual reality mean we might be able to put people in the grand canyon, on the summit of Everest, or at the bottom of the ocean with just the flick of a switch. The future could be bright – it could be awesome!
7. The new cigarette break?
Cigarette smoking used to be a common reason for regular breaks away from work or social situations, with people often heading outside. As smoking continues its decline (currently down to 15% of adults in the UK), these breaks could be replaced with short doses of nature. Making time for regular pauses by taking a walk outside, watching a quick nature video, or listening to a two-minute soundscape, could help us to manage the strains of a busy work life. Meditation is also becoming a popular technique for dealing with stress, and newly-released research suggests that combining mindfulness with nature encounters could deliver even greater benefits.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about how nature could benefit health and wellbeing, and we need to remember that spending time in natural environments can also present risks. Nonetheless, the next time you’re frustrated, stressed or anxious, try taking a dose of nature – it might just help you feel better.
Find out more about Radio 4’s Forest 404 experiment, and take part.
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