While it may seem obvious that a good hike through a forest or up a mountain can cleanse your mind, body, and soul, the science is now proving that hiking can actually change your brain… for the better! Aside from the almost instant feeling of calm and contentment that accompanies time outdoors, hiking in nature can reduce rumination. Many of us often find ourselves consumed by negative thoughts, which takes us out of the enjoyment of the moment at best and leads us down a path to depression and anxiety at worst. Research is now showing that spending time in nature decreases these obsessive, negative thoughts by a significant margin.
5 million years of existing within our natural environment was changed dramatically with the development of the industrial revolution. It has been shown that repeated exposure to artificial lights, chemicals, air and electromagnetic pollution and white noise is thought to be linked to increasing levels of stress and chronic disease.
The Urban Geography journal published a report proposing an urban-rural happiness gradient, which showed that though “there are many benefits of big-city living, high levels of happiness are not among them”.
Being in nature has long been associated with being mindful and meditative, but only recently has the scientific community researched the mental health benefits of outdoor immersion. A study published in 2010 in the Journal of Environmental Psychology showed that spending 20 minutes outside per day could boost energy levels.
Ecotherapy (Green Therapy/Nature Therapy) is a method for increasing contact with our environment and the natural world. It is a name given to treatment programs which help improve wellbeing via activities incorporating exposure to nature. Some projects may not be advertised specifically as Ecotherapy programs, but benefit can be drawn from any outdoor pursuit. Many of these activities can be undertaken at any time, either on your own or as part of a group for added social benefits. For example, one could join a rambling club, a conservation program or a NavTrek navigation course!
Specific Ecotherapy treatments are available for a range of disorders from mild depression to more severe mental illness. They also vary between self-directed ideas to programs with professional support. Treatments may be as simple as taking regular walks in the outdoors, involve guided group activities, or be delivered in combination with formal psychological therapies.
Anything that exposes one to nature and the outdoors in a therapeutic form is considered eco therapy. Anyone can practice Ecotherapy, be it climbing a mountain or bringing the outdoors inside with plants and flowers!
Over the last five years Mind funded 130 ‘Ecominds’ projects with support from the Big Lottery Fund. These projects have introduced more than 12,000 people with and at risk of developing mental health problems to Ecotherapy initiatives such as gardening, food growing or environmental conservation work. Ecotherapy helps people to look after their mental health by getting active outdoors while being supported by trained professionals.
‘Mountains for the Mind’ is a relatively new campaign by Trail magazine to promote the benefits of mountains and the outdoors
‘Mind Over Mountains’ is a social enterprise to improve physical and mental well-being through the outdoors. Their mission is to provide special safe spaces in mountain environments with a holistic approach of exercise, eco-therapy, coaching and inspiration to re-balance mental health; generate new focus, restore resilience and find agency over our lives.
We do recommend that people are spending some time outside each day; here is a quick and easy mindfulness exercise that you can practice on your daily exercise to promote your mental wellbeing.
This is especially good for bringing your thoughts back to the ‘here and now’ when experiencing anxiety and intrusive worrying thoughts.
Top tip - the more this is practiced the more effective it will be!
54321 Mindfulness activity
5 things you can see - Notice the bark on the tree, look for small inhabitants in the forest, fish jumping in the river; look closely and see how the petals curl on a bluebell. Become aware of the glossy green leaves of wild garlic that lines the trail you like to walk. Take your time to really look and acknowledge what you see.
4 things you can touch - The satisfyingly rough texture of a tree trunk, the fluffy cotton grass against your skin. Your cotton shirt against your neck. If you like, spend a moment literally touching these things. Maybe notice the sensation of gravity itself, or the floor beneath you. Take off your shoes and dip your toes in the cool water at the river bend.
3 things you can hear - Don’t judge, just hear. Twittering birds, bleating lambs, the distant traffic. The distant (or not so distant) voices of others. The space between sounds.
2 things you can smell - If at first you don’t feel like you can smell anything, simply try to sense the subtle fragrance of the air around you, or of your own skin. Walk in a woodland you will be overwhelmed with smells of the spring time flora and fauna!
1 thing you can taste - The lingering suggestion of coffee on your tongue, maybe?