POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY: Why going out is nature’s way to keep us all a little more grounded
A FEW weekends ago the clocks moved forward, signaling the noticeable start of longer and brighter days. We have even experienced abnormally hot weather over the past few weeks.
With the shift to working from home for so many people, people are increasingly looking outside to break up their day and create a boundary between home and office. People took to walking, hiking, biking and swimming in the open air in increasing numbers.
We intuitively know that being outdoors, connecting with nature is good for us. Scientists attribute this in part to the fact that mankind evolved and lived outdoors in wild landscapes for many, many years. Plus, we know exercise is good for us, of course. Does this mean that exercising outside is even better for our well-being? In this week’s article, we explore the evidence-based benefits of outdoor activities for our physical and mental well-being.
From a physical perspective, there is evidence in the scientific literature that being in nature while being more active outdoors is good for our cardiovascular health, blood pressure, gut health, eyesight, bone health and for the functioning of the nervous system and the immune system. .
Nature can contribute to the proper functioning of mental health both in prevention and in treatment. Recent studies have yielded results that suggest nature helps with emotional regulation and cognitive functions such as memory, attention, the ability to focus and concentrate, problem solving, and creativity.
When we’re outdoors in daylight, we reap the benefits of vitamin D, which many of us lack. Vitamin D is involved in the process of converting tryptophan into serotonin. Serotonin is known as the happiness chemical and can help relieve depression. Seasonal affective disorder, a type of mood disorder that most often affects people during the winter months, is thought to be linked to the lack of natural light.
Being outdoors in nature is associated with relief from low mood and anxiety. When we’re out in nature, we give our minds and eyes a break from our ubiquitous screens. This helps alleviate the dry eyes and headaches that are often an undesirable aspect of spending so much time ‘plugged in’. Looking at nature, colors, shapes and textures are pleasant and soothing and can provide a different center of attention.
Psychoevolutionary theory (advocated by Ulrich, 1983) suggests that holding back in
closed and artificial environments can evoke emotions such as anger, depression and despair. The literature also cites the grounding theory as a reason why nature can contribute to our well-being; Foot-to-ground connection with soil, grass, or sand has been associated with better sleep and well-being and reduced stress and pain.
Scientists also suggest that we absorb beneficial substances when we breathe in the fresh air of nature – beneficial bacteria, plant-derived essential oils and negatively charged ions. Apparently, there are relatively high levels of negative ions in forests and near bodies of water. These ions are involved in biochemical reactions that also increase serotonin levels in our body. Perhaps that’s why a hike in the Slieve Blooms, a trip to Lough Boora or Lough Owel or even a walk along our canals can be so restorative.
The term “forest bathing” for physical and mental well-being seems to originate from Japan. ‘Forest bathing’ is a translation of the Japanese term ‘shinrin yoku’, which has been defined in literature as coming into contact with and soaking up the atmosphere of the forest. Closer to home, the NHS (National Health Service) prescribes ‘green exercise’ as a way to improve mental health and physical well-being in the UK. In one region of Canada, the standard nature prescription given by GPs is two hours a week, outdoors in nature with a minimum of 20 minutes per session.
This exposure to outdoor activities can range from just being in your backyard to hiking along mountain trails. This prescription of nature has a name: ecotherapy.
What if you live in an urban center, town or city? What if access to nature was not as simple as it seems? Well, the good news is that studies suggest that even having plants in your home
can contribute to well-being. Moreover, even looking at nature through the window – the tree outside, the green in front, the blue sky – can reduce our stress levels and help trigger this parasympathetic nervous system, i.e. our ability to “rest and digest”.
Research has also shown that people recover faster from operations if their hospital bed gives them a view of trees and nature rather than concrete and buildings. Even looking at pictures of nature can be soothing. Engaging our imagination to conjure up and visualize a scene from nature, appealing to our senses – touch, taste, hearing and smell as well as vision – can be truly therapeutic and is an important part of any box. to wellness tools for the client and the clinician .
Julie O’Flaherty and Imelda Ferguson are licensed clinical psychologists, both based in private practice in Tullamore. Through Mind Your Self Midlands, they run positive psychology and mindfulness classes throughout the year.
They will be presenting a practical half-day course on how to manage and reduce stress, anxiety and worry next Monday, April 25. This course, A Morning of Mindfulness and Positive Psychology will take place at the Central Hotel, Main Street, Tullamore (opposite Lidl) from 10am to 1pm. The price of the course is €90 and includes course material, tea/coffee and hotel parking. For more information or to reserve a place, contact: Imelda on 087 2271630 or Julie on 087 2399328 or send a private message on their Mind Your Self Midlands Facebook page.
They can also be contacted through the Find a Psychologist section of the Psychological Society of Ireland website. www.psychologicalsociety.ie