According to the Mental Health Foundation, 74 per cent of us have felt so stressed at some point over the past year that we’ve felt overwhelmed and unable to cope. Taking steps to reduce stress – linked to anxiety, depression, insomnia, heart disease, poor immunity and digestive problems – is, for me, one of the most important things we can do for our health.
I would like you to take a approach that your life can be medicine. That it’s the little choices you make, day in day out, that add up to a healthier you. And one of the very best medicines for stress, I believe, is nature. We are hardwired to thrive in nature, surrounded by greenery, bathed in sky and breathing in the healing smells of plants and trees. Choosing to spend time outdoors, somewhere green, is my prescription for stressed out bodies and minds.
Urban life is exciting – but there’s no doubt it’s also draining. The typical modern high street absolutely bristles with stress. Traffic, signs, adverts, shops, commuters, smells, honking horns and wailing sirens – they’re all signals our brain must work hard to process as it tries to keep us alert and safe. Research has found that the more urban our environment, the worse our health becomes, while time spent in green spaces has been proven to improve our mental and physical health. Here’s how:
It lowers stress levels, reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Studies have shown that being in nature can reduce symptoms of depression.
Spending time in nature can help increase attention span and focus.
It boosts your immune system. Yes, really: trees emit certain chemicals that have been shown to have a positive effect on immunity.
It increases energy levels and reduces fatigue. If we exercise in nature, rather than in a gym, we tend to exercise for longer. One study found that people who exercise in the outdoors on a regular basis have higher levels of a hormone called serotonin, which reduces tiredness and helps keep us in a happier mood.
It lowers disease risk. Data from over 290 million people across 20 countries found that spending time in nature, or living near to it, can help reduce type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure, as well as improve sleep.
So how can you harness these incredible benefits? It’s easy. Simply spend five minutes each day enjoying nature, whether through sight, sound or smell. The wonderful thing about nature is that it’s not only free, it’s also readily accessible to many of us. Try any of the following ‘health snacks’ to get your green fix:
Go outside for five minutes. Stare at the trees, listen to the birds, watch the branches move in the wind. Really focus on your surroundings and luxuriate in the experience. If you have a garden or balcony it’s fantastic to do this first thing in the morning –natural daylight exposure at this time is great for your body clock, helping you feel more awake and, hours later, sleep better.
Multitask in nature. This could mean having your morning cup of tea in the garden. Or sitting by an open window, listening to the birds singing or meditating on the branches blowing in the wind. If you need to make a phone call, do it outside. Read a book, sketch, write your diary, take some photos. Look for opportunities to get back to nature, whatever the task at hand.
Get green fingered. If you have a garden, go outside to water and check in on your plants each day, taking the time to really notice how they have changed since the day before. No garden? Build a collection of houseplants and learn to care for them.
Exercise outdoors. The mental health benefits of both exercise and being somewhere green are well proven, so guess what happens when you combine them? Research confirms all-round health, fitness, mood and self-esteem are improved while mental fatigue and stress are reduced.
Listen up. If you can’t get outside, the sounds of nature can be of benefit. A quick search of YouTube, Spotify or any meditation app will find recordings of waves crashing or birds singing, so tune in to some aural therapy.
Gaze on something green. Research has shown that even just looking at images of the natural world (compared to urban environments) is calming. Select a beautiful photo of the outdoors for your screensaver, and place a few botanical pictures around your desk at work.