When the stress of day-to-day life gets too much for Danielle Colley, 43, she takes a hike – literally. This is a habit she has cultivated over the past five years, and that has helped her cope whenever she feels overwhelmed by life.
“Spending time outdoors is a great benefit to my mental health,” she says. “Getting out into a national park for a hike is first prize, however even a quick walk by a city beach close to home or stopping to lounge under a tree in a nearby park brings down the volume of my life, and helps to recalibrate my energy.”
Colley, who is a life evolution coach and a master practitioner of neurolinguistic programming, is passionate about the role that nature can play in mental and physical health. “To add this type of complementary treatment to whatever else you may require is a great way to give yourself the best opportunity for wellbeing,” she explains.
But Colley is not alone in finding a cure to life’s stresses in nature. In fact, The Global Wellness Summit flagged ‘medicalising’ nature as one of the biggest heath trends of 2019.
Behind the trend is an epidemic that experts are referring to as ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ (NDD). As the name implies, the phenomenon is the result of too much time spent indoors and online. While NDD isn’t a recognised medical condition, it has been linked with alienation, negative moods and reduced attention span. Our habit of spending more time indoors has also made us more sedentary – and with health practitioners dubbing sitting the “new smoking”, it’s clear we really need to get back outdoors.
To help people reap the benefits of nature, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has recently launched a programme in the Shetland Islands that allows GPs to issue patients with ‘nature prescriptions’ to treat mental health problems, diabetes, and heart disease. Prescriptions include walking along coastal paths and moors, bird-watching and gardening.
Meanwhile, in New Zealand, ‘Green Prescriptions’ (written advice from a health professional regarding physical activity) have been around since 1998. They are available right across the nation, and the initiative is funded by the Ministry of Health.
Research published in the New Zealand Medical Journal found that Green Prescriptions could improve a patient’s quality of life over 12 months, with no evidence of adverse effects.
Prescribing nature has been popular in Japan since the 1980s. Known as ‘Shinrin-yoku’, or forest bathing, the practice of taking mindful walks in nature has become a national pastime.
Research-backed by the Japanese government has discovered that forest bathing has a range of psychological and physiological benefits.
One study, conducted by Japan’s Chiba University, found that people who took part in forest bathing for 30 minutes had lower concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, a lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure compared with people who had spent all day in the city.
In another study, published in Public Health journal, researchers investigated the psychological effects of forest bathing. They found that people who had engaged in forest bathing had significantly reduced hostility and depression scores.
Of course, you don’t have to go to Japan to take part in forest bathing. Susan Joachim is a Certified Forest Therapy Guide and the president of the International Nature and Forest Therapy Alliance (INFTA). She says that forest bathing (also known as forest therapy) has been recognised globally as a public health initiative.
“People have become more aware about the proven health benefits of forest therapy, which is growing in popularity in Australia,” she says. “Forest therapy is also becoming a public health preventative health practice across Europe and China to combat the high costs of healthcare due to lifestyle diseases and ageing populations.”
Joachim notes that forest therapy can be a cure for people of all ages and a whole catalogue of modern ills – including too much screen time, overwork, consumerism and loneliness.
But what if you don’t live near a forest? Not a problem, according to Joachim. “You can reap the benefits of forest therapy in urban parks, nature trails and forest reserves,” she says.
Smelling the roses
In fact, Melbourne’s Royal Botanical Gardens Victoria recently began offering forest therapy sessions. “We have received great reviews,” says Joachim. “People are amazed by the benefits of just slowing down, walking barefoot, watching the clouds roll by, stopping to smell the roses, and tuning into nature with all of the senses.”
But nature Deficient Disorder isn’t just something that over-worked adults experience – children can also suffer from spending too much time indoors. It’s something that Tennille Murdoch, founder of The Forest School in New Zealand, has observed.
“This generation is known as the iPad generation – because they have never known life without it,” she says. “Many children worldwide are being ‘raised’ and ‘taught’ by devices. But The Forest School provides a reprieve to children who are struggling within a technology-focused environment.”
She isn’t exaggerating. Physical activity data from the New Zealand Ministry of Health in 2018 found that more than 80 per cent of children aged between five and nine spend two or more hours looking at a screen outside of school time.
Murdoch blames Nature Deficit Disorder for a lack of empathy for living things. “When we see this, it often extends beyond empathy for nature, into empathy within social relationships. So our job [at The Forest School] is to foster a genuine connection to nature and the living world, so that these children begin
to see beyond themselves.”
The Forest School curriculum offers children an opportunity to spend time in nature, and to learn from it. Outdoor classrooms not only allow for social skill development, but also help children with collaborative problem solving, developing empathy, learning negotiation, and taking on others’ perspectives.
“We encourage opportunities for our children to be curious and creative, imaginative and innovative,” explains Murdoch.
Saving nature, saving us
According to Murdoch, nature intervention, such as that offered by The Forest School, is more important than ever before.
“Young people need to be given as many opportunities as possible to experience nature, to be immersed in it, to develop a love for it, and to grow healthy habits by being engaged with it. Not only for the sake of saving our environment, but for the sake of saving ourselves,” she says.
Another response to Nature Deficit Disorder can be seen in the rise of emotional support animals (ESAs). Though there are no specific statistics to show this trend, many airlines have noted a sharp increase in the number of passengers requesting to fly with ESAs or service animals, and some airlines have even updated their regulations in response.
Melanie Jones is a psychologist at Lead the Way Psychology & Animal-Assisted Therapy. She explains that in today’s society, more of us are living in isolation and becoming disconnected from nature. “It’s just not healthy for humans to live in this way,” she says, “and animals are one of the very few things that can bring us back not only to nature, but also to feeling a sense of belonging and connection.”
Research on living with pets, having a service animal or visiting with therapy animals demonstrates that spending even short periods of time with friendly animals can have a profound effect on our mood and our physiology.
One article, published in Frontiers in Psychology, reviewed the evidence from 69 studies on human-animal interactions, and showed that such interactions made people feel happier, calmer and more trusting; and made their bodies less stressed.
“We also know from the research that animals are taking on emotional roles traditionally fulfilled by friends and family,” says Jones. “Animals are becoming our companions, our best friends, or our children. Psychologically, animals are meeting our basic need for attachment and connection.”
It is not surprising, then, that animals are providing humans with greater degrees of emotional support than ever before. Jones says that she is amazed by the results she has seen. “These animals are providing people with a reason to get up in the morning – a reason to live, in some cases. I have had clients tell me that their animal is the only friendly face they see for days at a time, the only living being they communicate with, their only source of love or affection.”
For life coach Danielle Colley, the nature cure is so powerful that she will often recommend time outdoors to her clients. “One of the fastest and easiest ways to change your physical and emotional state is to get some exercise, sunshine and fresh air,” she says. “Getting out in the sunshine, mixing up your hormonal chemistry with some activity, and just being in nature can change the outlook on your entire day.”