Too often we’re stuck in front of a small electronic screen of some variety either in our work or personal lives. We go home only to sit in front of yet another electronic screen, our television. Though it seems like relaxing to sit and watch TV, it is actually worse for us in terms of cognition than we ever knew. Research has shown that this level of stimulus only serves to make us more irritable. Co-author of the book, “Your Brain on Nature” Alan C. Logan states that with the inception of the internet, people globally (more often in places like North America and Europe) have become more aggressive, narcissistic, distracted, anxious, stressed and depressed. They’re also less nimble, and usually overweight.
Writer Florence Williams took a trip to the wide open woods of Japan to discover more about a theory that nature can lower blood pressure, battle depression, get rid of stress and even help to prevent diseases like cancer and so much more. The Japanese have lived with nature in harmony for thousands of years, and nature gives back to them in return in visible ways. They call these sorts of outings “shinrin-yoku” (forest bathing) and it means to completely be present within the environment, free of external stimulus entirely. They’ve taken it many steps further and have been measuring the exact effects that this forest bathing has on people by testing participants who undertook the shinrin-yoku. The practice was inspired by Shinto and Buddhist practices that allows nature to enter you using all five senses, so they ensure you drink a natural tea using things like tree bark and fresh roots, smell the air around you, and completely immerse yourself in it.
Japan has 48 official forest therapy trails with great cause, because highly populated Japan comes in 3rd for the highest suicide rates worldwide. They not only work longer hours, but there’s tireless pressure from schools and competition in work and school to be the best. This equates to an endless stream of stress that is hard to beat back. There’s so many people living in Tokyo, ten percent of the total population of Japan, that they’ve even come up with a word describing what it’s like to be packed like sardines in a metro-train. “Tsukin-jigoku” meaning commuter hell is really the truth, and part of every day life for most people living in this densely packed city. More and more research continues to surface that suggests that spending time in nature improves anxiety and depression symptoms as well as cognition, it boosts our capacity for empathy, and is even being explored further. Yoshifumi Miyazaki is leading a team who is tracking what it does to our cells and neurons on the most primitive of levels.
Miyazaki says that throughout our evolution we’ve spent 99.9% of our time in nature, so our physiological functions are still adapted to it, even if lost amid the urban culture we’ve adopted. He says that a feeling of comfort can be attained if our rhythms are synchronized with those of the environment. He has taken more than 600 research subjects into the woods and has discovered some incredible statistics. Working with Juyoung Lee of Chiba University, they found a 12.4 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, 7 percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 5.8 percent decease in heart rate. Subjective testing proved participants also reported better moods and lower levels of anxiety.
The difference between our parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system is huge. When we’re relaxed and at ease with our surroundings, our parasympathetic system (often referred to as the rest and digest branch) is what comes along, and stimulates appetite and usage of our food for nutrition. This is often why people report food tasting better when eaten outside. When we’re under constant stress and those stress triggers are tripped daily and relentlessly, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in full speed and that’s our fight or flight response. It is our defense mechanism to what we perceive a threat even at a subconscious level. Research that goes back all the way to the 1930’s has shown a direct correlation between chronically high cortisol levels and blood pressure leading to heart disease and depression.
Well respected Harvard Health Publications from Harvard Medical School has released an article about this idea as well. To summarize, staying inside and within a busy city isn’t good for anyone long term. We weren’t meant to live in boxes and only leave our homes to sit in yet another box. We need to get out and enjoy the nature gifted to us while we can. Enjoying better health means higher vitamin D levels, getting more exercise naturally without noticing the exertion, improvements in concentration and ability to heal. Another study tested cyclists on stationary bikes in front of differing colors of a screen in front of them. One was green, one grey and the other red. The ones who had green reported feeling as though they hadn’t exerted as much effort as normal. This comes as no surprise, since nature is very much green. Our bodies crave it, but rarely get it.
The first step is to plan a holiday for any length of time, the second to pick a place you know you can go to for relaxation, away from the hectic crazy pace of the world around us. Garden route accommodation specials calls up images of the town of Wilderness, which is so aptly named. There is no better place to relax and feel completely one with the world around you than being totally immersed in it with green rolling hills as a backdrop, a gorgeous coastline, the sound of the ocean, and knowing that at night you can head to a little slice of luxury in the form of Cinnamon House so that you can sleep in calm comfort and be refreshed and ready to bathe in the land around you and reap the benefits just like the people of Japan have been doing for thousands of years.