26 Jun 2022

POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY: Why getting out is nature's way of keeping us all a little more grounded

Lough Boora walk clears the head

Walking in Lough Boora: being out in nature is associated with alleviation of low mood and anxiety. When we are outside we are giving our minds and our eyes a break from our ever-present screens.

A COUPLE of weekends ago the clocks sprang forward, signalling the noticeable beginning of longer, brighter days. We even experienced some unseasonably warm weather in the past few weeks.

With the shift to working from home for so many, people have increasingly turned to the outdoors to break up their day and to create a boundary between home and office. People have taken to walking, hiking, cycling and swimming in the great outdoors in increasing numbers.

We know intuitively that being outside, connecting with nature is good for us. Scientists attribute this partly to the fact that humankind has evolved and lived outdoors in wild landscapes over many, many years. Moreover, we know that exercise is good for us, of course. Does that mean that exercise outdoors is even better for our well-being? In this week’s article we explore the evidence-based benefits of outdoors activity for both our physical and mental well-being.

From a physical point of view, there is evidence from the scientific literature that being in nature as well as being more active outdoors is good for our cardiovascular health, blood pressure, bowel health, eyesight, bone health and for nervous system and immune system functioning.

Nature can contribute to good mental health functioning both in prevention and treatment. Recent studies have yielded results that suggest that nature helps with emotional regulation and cognitive functions such as memory, attention, ability to focus and concentrate, problem-solving and creativity.

When we are outdoors, during daylight we reap the benefit of vitamin D, something that many of us are low in. Vitamin D is involved in the conversion process of tryptophan to serotonin. Serotonin is known as the happy chemical and may help alleviate depression. Seasonal affective disorder, a type of mood disorder which most commonly affects people in the winter months is thought to be connected with the deficit in natural light.

Being outdoors in nature is associated with alleviation of low mood and anxiety. When we are out in nature we are giving our minds and our eyes a break from our ever-present screens. This helps mitigate against the dry eyes and headaches that are often an unwelcome aspect of spending so much of our time 'plugged-in'. Looking at nature, the colours, shapes and textures are pleasant and calming and can provide a different focus of attention.

Psychoevolutionary theory (championed by Ulrich, 1983) suggests that restraining ourselves in

enclosed, artificial settings can evoke emotions such as anger, depression and despair. The literature also cites the theory of earthing as a reason why nature can contribute to our wellbeing; foot to soil connection with the soil, grass or sand has been linked to better sleep and wellbeing and reduced stress and pain.

Scientists also suggest that we take in beneficial substances when we are breathing in nature’s fresh air – beneficial bacteria, plant-derived essential oils and negatively-charged ions. Apparently, there are relatively high levels of negative ions in forests and close to bodies of water. These ions are involved in biochemical reactions that also increase levels of serotonin in our bodies. Maybe this is why a hike in the Slieve Blooms, a trip to Lough Boora or Lough Owel or even a stroll along our canals can be so restorative.

The term 'Forest bathing' for physical and mental wellbeing seems to have originated in Japan. 'Forest bathing' is a translation of the Japanese term 'shinrin yoku', which has been defined in the literature as making contact with and taking in the atmosphere of the forest. Nearer to home, the NHS (National Health Service) is prescribing 'green exercise' as a means of improving mental health and physical well-being in the UK. In one area in Canada the standard nature prescription given by GPs is two hours per week, outdoors in nature with a minimum of 20 minutes per session.

This exposure to outdoors activity can range from just being in your back garden to hiking along the mountain trails. This prescribing of nature has a name – ecotherapy.

What if you are living in an urban centre, a town or a city though? What if access to nature is not as easy as it sounds? Well, the good news is that studies suggest that even having plants in your home

can contribute to well-being. Furthermore, even looking out the window at nature – the tree outside, the green across the way, the blue sky - can lower our stress levels and help trigger that parasympathetic nervous system, aka our ability to 'rest and digest'.

Research has also shown that people recover from operations more quickly if their hospital bed gives them a view of trees and nature rather than concrete and buildings. Even looking at photos of nature can be soothing. Engaging our imagination to conjure up and visualise a scene from nature, drawing on our senses - touch, taste, sound and smell as well as vision – can be really therapeutic and is an important part of any well-being toolkit for both client and clinician.

Julie O'Flaherty and Imelda Ferguson are chartered clinical psychologists, both based in private practice in Tullamore. Through Mind Your Self Midlands, they run courses on Positive Psychology and Mindfulness through the year.

They will present a practical half-day course on how to manage and reduce stress, anxiety and worry on Monday, April 25 next. This course, A Morning of Mindfulness and Positive Psychology will take place in the Central Hotel, Main Street, Tullamore (opposite Lidl) from 10am to 1pm. The fee for the course is €90 and includes course materials, tea/coffee and hotel parking. For further information or to book a place, contact: Imelda on 087 2271630 or Julie on 087 2399328 or send a private message on their Facebook page Mind Your Self Midlands.

They can also be contacted through the Find a Psychologist section of the Psychological Society of Ireland website

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