As a start-up, our first partnership was with Black Dog Outdoors, a free platform that aims to improve people’s mental health by connecting them with the outdoors. This was no coincidence. Mental health and wellbeing in general have been close to both Jack’s and my hearts for many years and we can personally vouch for the restorative effects of nature and the great outdoors.
But we don’t need to vouch for them, because the benefits are well documented now and the mental health charity, Mind, is unequivocal: “spending time in nature has been found to help with mental health problems”. The list of conditions that can be helped is sizeable: stress, anxiety, depression, confidence, bi-polar disorder, seasonal affective disorder, OCD and more.
The reasons for this are still being explored, even if the evidence is unequivocal. A study from Stanford University argued that we have moved to cities at such a pace that we haven’t been able to physiologically adapt so we find the difference between concrete and nature distressing, especially with the constant buzz of activity and risk leading to higher levels of brain activity. As part of their research, they scanned volunteers brains after a walk through the city or through a green space, and found that the latter reduced brain activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area associated with mental illness. They also found that volunteers reported reduced rumination, or “repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self”.
Time in nature also has physiological benefits, which can lead to mental health improvements too. One example of this is an interesting phenomenon called “Grounding” or “Earthing”. This is defined as “electrically conductive contact of the human body with the surface of the Earth”, but usually means walking barefoot through nature or lying on the grass with skin-to-Earth contact. This is likely to be because the fabric of our body or ‘living matrix’ serves as one of our primary antioxidant defence systems, and the Earth regulates our electron levels. This leads to wounds healing quicker, reduced inflammation, reduced pain, reduced stress and improved sleep – all of which can contribute to better mental health in turn. Meanwhile, a study in Japan found that trees release chemicals called phytoncides, which have an anti-microbial effect on human bodies, boosting the immune system.
One of the most fascinating studies for me was one by a team in Sweden that showed that patients recovering from spinal surgery felt less pain if they enjoyed natural light, while another study showed that by just being able to see trees and nature from their window, post-op patients recovered quicker and reduced medication doses. Nature heals us.
Because of this mounting evidence, time in nature is now being prescribed by doctors for mental and physical conditions. In Scotland, there’s a trial in partnership with the RSPB involving ten GP surgeries around the country prescribing nature as part of a patient’s treatment. Overseas, it’s being rolled out more widely. In Japan, for example, the practice of ‘shinrin-yoku’ or ‘forest-bathing’ is widely prescribed for a range of ailments, including being used to address cancer, strokes, gastric ulcers, depression, anxiety, stress, high blood pressure and poor sleep. The idea is simple: spend around two hours mindfully walking through a wooded area, free from electronic distractions, and use all of your senses to experience nature - no need to get undressed, don't worry!
So the evidence is comprehensive: connecting with the great outdoors improves our mental and physical health.
This Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re launching a new campaign to help people connect with nature and to improve their mental health: #HappyOutdoors. For the next three months, we’ll be sharing tips and information on how to connect with nature, reposting your content with the hashtag #HappyOutdoors, and running trips as soon as we’re allowed.
If you’d like to share your experiences of how getting outdoors has improved your mental health, please do let us know.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for ways to connect with nature, why not start with the National Trust’s ideas for ‘rewilding your life’, from listening to birdsong to reading a book outdoors? I’m working my way through it and loving the impact it makes and I’d love to hear what you think if you do give it a go, so don’t forget to tag us on Instagram with #HappyOutdoors!