In honor of Earth Day I thought I would spend some time exploring how nature can benefit overall well-being. We usually just feel good when we are outside but have you ever thought to consider exactly why we feel good?
I lived in two of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in Canada for over two decades. There were people and noise everywhere. I loved the hustle and bustle for many years but I eventually began to feel like I had few peaceful moments in my life. And, it was absolutely starting to impact my anxiety and depression. I yearned for peace and quiet.
I finally tired of it and moved to an area much quieter. What I gained in tranquillity, I lost in my daily commute. I spend much more time in the car (not great for the environment - sorry, Mother Earth!) but part of my daily drive to and from work is through farm land and I have a beautiful provincial park ten minutes from my doorstep.
The noise and fast pace, coupled with the increasingly high cost of living, contributed to my decision to move. And I am not the only one, especially in Metro Vancouver. Many of us are searching for a balanced life, one that has well-being at it's core. But not everyone in the world can just pick up and move to somewhere more peaceful.
Urbanization is happening at a rapid pace worldwide. Why? Increased industrialization - people move to where there are jobs. According to a 2014 United Nations (UN) report called World Urbanization Prospects, 54% of the world population resided in urban locations four years ago. It is projected that by 2050 the number will be 66%. The city with the largest population? Tokyo, Japan. The greater Tokyo metro region wins the title with a staggering 36 million people.
Which brings me to the concept of forest bathing. Ever heard of it? The Japanese term is
'shinrin-yoku' and refers to the sense of well-being that you get from being in nature. This was started in the early 1980's by the Forest Agency of Japan to encourage the Japanese people to take more walks in specially designated forests. Since then it has become an established well-being practise in Japan and is spreading worldwide. Just Google it and you'll find no lack of scholarly reports and websites dedicated to the topic.
And it appears that those folks at the Forest Agency knew what they were doing. In addition to the physical benefits of exercise, there are a many other positive things that happen when you practise shinrin-yoku. Here are just a few courtesy of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources:
Top Five Ways Forests Increase Well-Being:
1. Improves Mental Health: Spending time in green spaces with trees reduces your pulse rate, heart rate, blood pressure and the stress hormone, cortisol.
2. Reduces Noise: Trees and shrubs act as buffers and can reduce 50% of the noise heard by humans.
3. Improves Attention: The effect of walking through a park is equal to the peak effect of two typical ADHD medications.
4. Improves Physical Health: Post-surgical patients with window views of nature have shorter hospital stays and take fewer pain medications than patients with windows facing brick walls.
5. Reduces Violence: Trees and natural landscapes in public housing reduce domestic aggression and violence by as much as 25%.
I don't know about you, but I have a renewed sense of awe and wonderment for nature.
According to the UN, the number one cause of disability worldwide is mental health related. While mental disorders are complicated things and I do not recommend any one form of treatment - that is up to you and your health care provider - I think it's fair to say that time spent outdoors in nature is time well spent. And it just might be something that we should all add to our mental health toolkit.
If you are looking for me this weekend, I'll be in the forest, shirin-yoku'ing.