Travellers and adventurers know the rush of being outside in the wild; the calming smell of the woods, the exciting sounds of nature and the feeling of fresh air in your lungs can balance even the most chaotic of minds.
But enjoying time in the wild isn’t just about the short term enjoyment. There’s also in-depth scientific research that shows how getting back to nature can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.
As well as this, a recent survey revealed that 33% of people believe camping or caravanning has had a very positive effect on their mental health, 22% believe it has a positive effect on their physical health, and 12% of people believe it has helped them to become closer to their family.
Outside therapy – how does it work?
The practice of outside therapy, (sometimes called “forest bathing”) is spending time in nature and practicing mindfulness in the great outdoors. Research suggests that it calms those who feel stressed or anxious and helps people (especially children) fight the “always-on” culture promoted by social media. In fact, 70% of Brits believe outside therapy should be prescribed on the NHS to help those struggling with their mental health.
But how does it actually work?
Well, there are several studies that show how the outdoors can make a significant difference to our wellbeing. The main ways it can affect us include:
Lowering cortisol levels
In one study, cortisol, also known as “the stress hormone”, was found to be lower in subjects who spent two nights on a forest break, compared to those who were in the city.
High levels of cortisol can lead to physical effects such as weight gain, acne, and headaches, and can activate your “fight-or-flight” response. This can leave you feeling stressed, anxious, and if exposure is continued, depressed. So, finding ways to avoid or reduce it is really important, which is why spending time outside can help you feel more balanced.
Increasing Vitamin D levels and balancing melatonin levels
Fitness Coach Amy Elizabeth knows the healing powers of spending time in nature.
“Spending time outside increases our Vitamin D levels and balances our Melatonin levels. Vitamin D helps regulate the calcium and phosphate in our bodies and melatonin regulates our sleeping cycle, so both are very important when it comes to the feeling of well-being.”
It’s not only the increased Vitamin D levels that can help if you’re suffering from “mental fatigue”.
With fewer modern-day distractions (such as watching TV just before bed), people get a better night’s sleep when they spend long periods of time outside. And for those suffering from insomnia, calming nature sounds, fresh air and greenery can lower blood pressure and help distract your mind from negative thinking, leading to more chances of better sleep.
Improvements in self-esteem and mood
Walks in the forest have been linked to decreased levels of anxiety and bad moods. One study of people with Major Depressive Disorder found that after a 50-minute walk in nature, subjects reported increases in mood, and researchers even found cognitive improvements relating to memory.
This was theorised to be due to an increase in dopamine brought about by nature. Dopamine is a hormone that plays a major role in the motivational component of reward-motivated behaviour, helping with self-esteem.
This improvement in cognitive functioning can also have a hugely positive effect on creativity, helping people to problem-solve better than those stuck indoors.
Better overall health
Exposure to green space has been proven to reduce the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress, and high blood pressure. Those living closer to green spaces are also more likely to have better health overall, all over the world.
Why does outdoor therapy work?
A recent study from the University of East Anglia of people in over 20 countries around the world found that there are several reasons people are better off when surrounded by green spaces. The report said:
“People living near greenspace likely have more opportunities for physical activity and socialising. Meanwhile, exposure to a diverse variety of bacteria present in natural areas may also have benefits for the immune system and reduce inflammation.
Much of the research from Japan suggests that phytoncides – organic compounds with antibacterial properties – released by trees could explain the health-boosting properties of forest bathing.”
How can outdoor therapy help you?
Both prolonged and regular periods in nature can have a hugely positive impact on your mental health, so you don’t need to disrupt your routine too rigorously to feel the benefits.
If you live in a concrete jungle, simply spending some time in your local park on your lunch break or taking a walk to the beach can make a difference.
If you can, look to spend some time camping at the weekend in places near to you. No matter where you are, you won’t be more than an hour’s drive away from a campsite, and you’d be surprised at how cheap a camping holiday can be!
If you’re a seasoned adventurer, remember to take the time to appreciate your surroundings when on your regular hikes and take the time to concentrate on your mental wellbeing.