Author: Dr Renee Cachia, Psychologist
Living in a busy city and co-existing with millions of other people, alongside increases in urban developments, technological advances and the constant availability of distractions, without conscious effort we too often miss our daily breath of fresh air and walk in nature. In contrast to the other competing demands of daily life, this may seem trivial at best, but could we be underestimating the effect that walking in nature has on our mental health and wellbeing? Urbanisation may be inevitable but research suggests that scheduling a regular park walk or weekend hike in nature may have buffering effects.
With mental illness expected to affect at least one in five Americans and one in six Australians in a given year, there are millions of people who are currently experiencing clinical symptoms of anxiety, depression/affective disorders, or a combination of both. Some studies also suggest that city-dwellers might be at additional risk of such symptoms. Given there are a large proportion of these individuals who do not seek professional help for a range of reasons, particularly men, having affordable and broadly accessible evidence-based strategies to those of all walks of life has never been more important.
As it turns out, there is scientific evidence to support the importance of my beloved lunchtime walk through a magnificent park to replenish in the middle of a workday, which also explains why I bounce back into work with a clearer mind and in a better mood than when I left. Firstly, when we exercise, our body releases endorphins, the feel-good neurotransmitters that increase positive feelings of euphoria and assist to promote the modulation of appetite, the release of sex hormones and enhancement of the immune response. Did I mentioned that exercise-induced endorphins also assist to naturally reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety?
To simplify the science behind stress and anxiety, let’s break down the role of the two main components of the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system controls the stress response, and the parasympathetic nervous system repairs the body to a natural homeostatic state. When the ‘fear centre’ of our brain (the amygdala) sends a distress signal to activate the fight-flight stress response, the body releases stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) which cooccurs with a series of physiological changes: heart rate quickens, breathing restricts, blood pressure increases and resources unnecessary for imminent survival shut down, which is why the digestion, immune and reproductive systems are suppressed.
Take away: Our bodies are not designed to remain in a stressed state for prolonged periods of time, despite the myths in our hustle culture!
In contrast to the complexity of our physiology, a very modest and seemingly simple walk through a park can actually have profound effects to assist in counteracting the damages of the stress response. As well as increasing endorphins, walking in natural environments reduces cortisol, increases mood, and is associated with neural benefits in the part of our brain (subgenus cortex) that is responsible for reducing those patterns of repetitive, unhelpful thoughts. If that is not convincing enough to take a walk and to immerse yourself in nature, let’s consider the effects of spending time in enchanted forests (they can be normal forests too).
I write this from sunny California, the ultimate state for beautiful and unique mountain hikes. After a recent weekend hike, I anecdotally claimed to my companions that there is seriously something special about hiking as I was noticing lingering benefits for the days following. Well, as you may suspect, the results are not unique to me! Walking in forests, even just viewing the scenery in forests, results in all of the previously mentioned health benefits, in addition to improving immunity, cognitive function and reports of positive feelings, such as feeling “soothed” – yes please.
While we advocate for the town planning of future infrastructure to revolve around large green spaces, outward and upward (have you heard of vertical green gardens?) for our overall health and wellbeing, I invite you to schedule some movement in nature in your local community. Be it walking alone, with a (furry) friend, or by simply sitting and immersing your visual senses in greenery, you will likely reap some of the benefits. In true California style, take any activity to the coast or park, such as frisbee, a scooter, a skateboard or a bike, and enjoy the scenery. If you don’t seek to find solitude, perhaps you can access the benefits of sharing a friendly smile with a stranger.
To learn more about Renee: @drreneecachia