As we move forward into May, National Mental Health Awareness Month, we are exploring some simple things families can do to get through these difficult times with a focus on improving mental health. The effects of being in nature on our mental health have gotten a lot of attention lately.
Perhaps you have heard of the Japanese practice of forest bathing, or immersion in the sights, sounds, and smells of the forest. The concept of forest bathing was developed in Japan in the 1990’s to counter tech burnout and inspire appreciation of the forest with an eye toward preservation. Since then, the practice has been vigorously studied and shown to have positive effects on mental health, improving mood and reducing stress, and even boosting the immune system. Check out our fun infographic about getting outdoors with children and immersing our senses in nature!
Simply walking in nature lowers cortisol (stress hormone) levels and improves mood. And you don’t have to travel far to get these effects. Spending time in a city park, on a forested urban trail, and even your back yard can do the trick. Interestingly, studies also show that the ability to view nature (a tree, squirrels, birds) through a window improves mental health in several ways, acting on our perception of our own well-being, recovery from stress, and mental focus. It can even help to reduce cravings for foods and substances that can have negative effects on our physical and mental health.
In addition to boosting mood and decreasing stress, being outdoors has been shown to alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety, improve performance on work and school tasks, and regulate sleep.
Unsurprisingly, recent studies have demonstrated that having access to green spaces in childhood decreases the likelihood that a person will develop mental health issues in adulthood. The more time spent close to nature, the lower the chances of experiencing psychiatric difficulties.
Looking at all of these studies is pretty convincing, but doesn’t compare to the sensation I have when, after a stressful morning working and schooling young children, we step outside to go for a walk together and suddenly I know that everything is going to be ok.
So, how can we make it easy to spend more time outdoors?
Here are some ideas that we have come up with. Feel free to add your own in the comments!
- Eat outside! If it’s cold, layer up. If it’s hot, find or create a shady spot in your yard. Or go one step further and grow your snack!
- Take the family dog for a walk or offer to walk your neighbor’s dog.
- Schedule regular, outdoor “brain breaks” from household tasks, schooling, and working.
- Schedule regular trips to the forest. Your closest natural area will do! If this is new for you, consider a monthly outing. Perhaps you can make it weekly. The more you get out there, the better you will feel!
- Many activities that we normally do indoors can be taken outside. My son brings his Legos to the covered patio to play while I work on my laptop. We sew, craft, play music, read, and play with toys on our porch. Challenge yourself to find out how many tasks you can take out of doors!
- Schedule a monthly or weekly picnic.
- Go camping!
- Even moving your indoor desk or schoolwork area close to a window will help boost mood and decrease anxiety and stress levels
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Text: © Kids In Transition to School 2021
Image: © Iofoto | Dreamstime.com