Looking for a simple way to help reduce stress, anxiety and depression – and maybe improve your memory? Take a walk in the woods

Your brain and nature

Research in a growing scientific field called ecotherapy has shown a strong connection between time spent in nature and a reduction in stress, anxiety and depression. In particular, it shows that trees can help reduce stress.

It’s not clear exactly why outdoor excursions have such a positive mental effect. Yet, in a 2015 study, researchers compared the brain activity of healthy people after they walked for 90 minutes in either a natural setting or an urban one. They found those who did a nature walk had lower activity in the prefrontal cortex. This is a brain region that is active during rumination. It is defined as repetitive thoughts that focus on negative emotions. When people are depressed or under high levels of stress, this part of the brain malfunctions. People experience a continuous loop of negative thoughts.

Digging a bit deeper, it appears interacting with natural spaces offers many therapeutic benefits. For instance, calming nature sounds and even outdoor silence can lower blood pressure. It also reduces the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which calms the body’s fight-or-flight response.

The visual aspects of nature also have soothing and uplifting effects. Having something pleasant to focus on like trees and greenery helps distract your mind from negative thinking. There is a wonderful yoga mantra: “where the mind goes energy follows”. Next time you have unwanted thoughts, consciously shift your thinking to something else and it’s likely the negative thought will subside. Observing trees is a great focus for the mind. Lets call it a positive distraction.

Find your space

How much time with nature is enough? Research is saying anything from 20 to 30 minutes a day to once a week. The point is to make your interactions a part of your normal day and set realistic goals. Make it achievable and a part of your daily routine.

Your time with nature could be something as simple as a daily walk in a park or a Saturday afternoon on a local trail. You can even try to combine your nature outings with your regular exercise by power walking or cycling outdoors. Any amount of time spent outdoors will benefit you health.

In London, we are so blessed to have so many varied street trees. Rather than walking around with your head down, take time to look up! Observe the effect trees have on your wellbeing. Of course you can always join Paul Wood (yes that’s his real name) on one of his walks to learn more too.

The type of nature setting doesn’t matter either. Focus on places you find the most pleasing. The goal is to get away from stimulating urban settings and surround yourself with a natural environment.

And don’t feel you have to go it alone. A 2014 study found that group nature walks were just as effective as solo treks in terms of lowering depression and stress. They helped improve overall mental outlook.

I have worked with groups who had recently experienced stressful life events like a serious illness, death of a loved one, or unemployment. They often had the greatest mental boost from a group nature outing. Nature can have a powerful effect on our mental state.

Sacred space

I find trees sacred and humbling. Living near Greenwich Park I often visit a favourite tree. There is something majestic and deeply connecting to Mother Earth. When I’m looking for creative inspiration or wanting to solve a problem it is the trees that often turn to for wisdom and inspiration.

Working in natural health, I use many remedies and flower essences from trees. The Bach flower essences are made in the UK and use ingredients from many indigenous trees. They are a vibrational healing and like homeopathy work in the Paracelsus principle of “like cures like”.

Trees calm and connect us to something greater that just our perceived physical reality. We experience their benefits by being amongst them more that intellectualising them. Without our trees we loose a connection to spirit and to something greater than just what is.

So take a breath in feel your chest opening, your ribcage expanding. Visualise a favourite tree. As you take the time to be still notice through the silence you are creating a deeper sense of who you are and how connected we all are to each other and our planet earth.