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Nurture through Nature: Why the Outdoors is Good for Your Mental Health

We were both lucky enough to have access to the great outdoors growing up, complete with rolling hills and leafy woodland. Christian’s childhood was spent here in the Surrey Hills, in a sleepy village at the foot of Leith Hill, whilst Beckie’s younger years and outdoor adventures were in northern Italy, in the woodlands around Lake Maggiore. It’s why we feel most at home in our boots enjoying the simple sounds of a crackling fire or leaves rustling underfoot. 

 

Over the years, our society has provided a plethora of ever-changing digital distractions, causing so many of us to become increasingly disconnected from nature.  Our world is shaped by eight hour working days, and it is now widely acknowledged that this disconnect can have a negative impact on our well-being. 

 

In this fast-paced technological world it’s all too easy to become glued to our screens. As a result, our attention span gets shorter. After a busy day at work, there is an almost irresistible temptation to flop onto the sofa and switch on Netflix. That may sound relaxing, but is it really the best recipe for good mental health? How do we get the balance right?

 

Most of us instinctively know that nature is good for us, and the science is gradually getting to grips with how this works. Switching screens for trees could be the answer, as recent studies continuously show that spending time in nature has a hugely positive affect on  physical and mental health. In today’s mental health epidemic, we know we need to find ways to regularly connect with nature, to use the lichen, leaves, flowers and fungi as a tonic for our weary body and mind. 

In 1980 the practise of Shirin Yoku – or ‘Forest Bathing’ – began in Japan. It denotes the act of spending time in a natural setting and immersing yourself in its atmosphere. Forest Bathing is a meditative practice that involves turning off your digital devices for an hour or two and walking through the woods. Find a suitable spot to settle down on a log and try to attune your senses to the sights, smells and sounds of the forest.

When was the last time you really listened to the sound of the wind in the trees? Or felt the texture of tree bark? Shirin Yoku remains a popular medical treatment prescribed by doctors in Japan and extensive studies have proved its benefits to patients’ health and well-being. It certainly sounds like a lovely way to spend your free time, but I can hear the data-heads out there huffing and puffing in disbelief. Is this a real way to treat health problems or just another namby-pamby fad for spiritual millennials?

Just a simple stroll beneath the trees is proven to provoke physiological and psychological responses in your body. When we take a countryside stroll, several things begin to happen inside of us. Firstly, when the sunlight hits our skin our serotonin levels begin to rise. Serotonin, also known as the happy hormone, is also increased when our skin comes into contact with soil (this is also why many people find gardening relaxing!).

 

As we continue our amble through the woods our blood pressure and pulse rate decrease, as well as our levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. An anxious mind may suddenly begin to feel clearer and less troubled by external worries. By focussing our minds on the beautiful details of the natural environment that surrounds us we can become more present, and this in turn helps to alleviate low mood. The light exercise involved is also proven to release endorphins without overstimulating our nervous system. It’s really all win-win, don’t you think?

 

“For me, taking a walk among plants and trees is as medicinal as any talking cure or pharmaceutical. I become engrossed in every leafy, creeping or flying inhabitant of the wood and with each detail that draws my attention, with each metre I walk, the incessant clamour of daily concern seems more muffled and the foggy pall of depression begins to disperse” – these wise words resonate strongly with us, words by Emma Mitchell, whose book ‘The Wild Remedy’ documents her personal perspective of how a connection with nature can improve well-being.

If a spot of forest bathing isn’t really your thing then there are numerous other ways you can reconnect with nature. Why not leave your phone at home and try one of the following ideas: 

 

  1. Buy or rent a book on plant and tree species and take it on a walk, so that you can try to identify the different varieties you see. 
  2. Start a nature journal. Bring along a notebook to record your sightings and any thoughts, feelings or observations you have. You can even get creative and include some sketches.
  3. Wildlife spotting is a wonderful way to focus on the present. Try spotting birds, insects and mammals whilst out in the forest. Take binoculars for the best results. 
  4. Grow your own. Digging and cultivating a vegetable patch in your garden will encourage you to spend more time outdoors and give you a wonderful sense of satisfaction when your first crop comes in. 
  5. Cook over fire. Here at The Salt Box we’re all about the flames, whatever the weather. So why not take a leaf out of our book and organise an autumnal woodland gathering complete with a crackling fire and delicious food.

If you’ve taken a look through our events calendar, you’ll know that our business focuses strongly on the coming together of people in the great outdoors – with a range of outdoor activities where guests can feel at peace in the natural landscape of the woods.  Take our Family Wild Things workshop, for example. This day out includes cookery workshops around the fire, bushcraft and natural crafts. There couldn’t be a better way to enjoy a spot of mindfulness beneath the trees. This autumn, we’re holding an event in collaboration with Surrey Art School, where we’ll be taking a mindful walk through the woods to gather inspiration and forage for leaves, pine cones and then – we’ll return to the barn for a cosy creative botanical pen and wash workshop. We have so many guests exclaim how they leave our events feeling calm and connected to our natural world and the seasons.

 

Next time you reach for that remote, think about throwing on your coat instead and doing your soul a favour by getting outdoors. Research tells us that our natural world has a calming effect on everything from blood pressure to stress hormones. 

 

Become engrossed in the natural world around you, looking for birds, insects and plants wherever you go. So why not take a leaf out of our book and try to bring a little more nature into your life. Stop. Look. Listen. There’s no doubt you won’t regret it.

 

#feastinspirerewild

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