Have you checked your phone today? If so, how many times? If you’re reading this article online chances are you are on your phone right now… Now, this isn’t a terrible thing- it is your connection to the modern world, a lens through which you can navigate your life and stay up-to-date with everything that’s going on.
There is a slight downfall though. While you’re busy on your phone you might miss a chance encounter with someone you know, or miss learning something from a conversation with a stranger at a bus stop. You might even walk right by a potential soul mate.
Basically what this means is that while we have our ultra-personalised world at our fingertips, we are more isolated than ever before. Although it may not feel that way, there is much to suggest this is the case.
One of the more starting signs that our insular way of life isn’t doing wonders for us is the rate of depression in modern society. The numbers on rates of depression are increasing to an all time high, which is tied to the modern way of life.
Currently, depression rates have skyrocketed to there highest ever. They are more prevalent than asthma, arthritis, even diabetes, and the number is only increasing.
What makes this situation worse is the fact that the most effective anti-depressant medication only has a success rate of around 40% in double blind studies, yet this doesn’t include symptoms that may return months or years down the track.
Now while this might appear to be a losing battle on a happy, healthy culture, it’s far from it. There is an exciting new treatment for depression that has shown amazing results… and it’s a lot more simple than you might think: nature
Most of us realise that nature is good for us- it’s common sense. We’ve evolved for 99.99% of our existence on this planet alongside it, only to shove it aside in recent times for a more urbanized life.
It’s an ironic twist of fate that has led us to almost rediscover nature, and find how it can help us with health, mainly depression.
Imagine this scene: You are being treated for depression. You are about to see your psychologist and sitting in a quiet, yet sterile waiting room. There is no stimulation except for a handful of old magazines and various posters on the walls. No one in the waiting room is speaking. You are called into the treatment room and sit down.
From this setting you’re probably not feeling great. In fact, the mere image of this scene probably doesn’t make you feel great.
Now, try and picture this instead. You are going to see your psychologist, however they have a slightly different office to what you’re used to. They practice in the forest, outside, in nature.
You can hear animals rustling in the bushes, see birds in the trees, feel the earth compress and move under your feet. You wander down a worn trail until you reach a small clearing to find your therapist waiting for you on a grassy patch.
While this example might not be perfect, you get the idea- one setting feels wholesome and healing, while the other does not.
Sometimes common sense prevails in the understanding of what is good for us as humans. This sort of clarity is revealed with things like the thought experiment above. However, while we assume a forest setting is much more beneficial to us than an indoor one, its often overlooked as to whythis is so.
In the past decades, more and more research has been carried out onto this very subject, with many looking into just what happens to us in nature and why even the thought of a tranquil natural environment is enough to calm us down.
One particular example of this idea is reflected in recent studies on depression. What researchers found was that therapy was significantly more effective when carried out in a forest environment, rather than a traditional psychological institution.
A research team from Inje University, Korea, studied participants with clinical depression by subjecting them to therapy sessions in both a traditional environment as well as an outdoor forest environment.
The results of the study were amazing.
On almost every level, participants subject to therapy in the forest recorded significantly lower levels of depressive like sensations after just 4 sessions.
On one hand, salivary cortisol levels were significantly lower in the forest group. Salivary cortisol is the amount of cortisol in the saliva. Because cortisol is produced in the adrenal cortex, people usually feel stressed, anxious, and uneasy when levels are high. High cortisol levels also lead to poor immune response that can have negative cascade effects on ones health.
There was also an increase in the forest group’s parasympathetic nerve activity. Like the lowered cortisol, it was after just 4 forest therapy sessions that the activity increased. An increase in parasympathetic nerve activity slows down your heart rate while relaxing the muscular system helping a sense of calm throughout the body. It also is linked to intestinal and glandular activity that in turn helps bring bodily function back to homeostasis.
Its basically resetting the stress levels throughout the entire body.
While the research is still in it’s early phase, forest therapy has shown promising results for any form of depression. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about the therapy that works, but it seems to make people feel extremely comfortable and at home.
There are countless stimuli that are at play when exposed to forest therapy, a multifaceted sensory experience. Not only is the therapy a mental exercise, every other sense is activated too. The sounds of animals, the smell of the trees, the feeling of the wind, the sight of moving leaves, a comfortable temperature all seem to play a part in allowing the entire body to begin the process of relaxation and healing.
This therapy has even led researchers to conclude that the benefits don’t just stop with depression. There are studies showing that forest therapy also leads to increased confidence levels, subjective wellbeing, self-esteem, socialization, as well as a higher quality of personal relationships. The idea is that a natural environment helps to produce an innate coping response, compared to a defensive response usually seen in more artificial settings that a city generally offers.
What this all means is that while we can’t escape the reality of a modern technological life, we can hit the reset button on our health from time to time. Something as simple as exposing ourselves to the natural world can be all it takes in helping us recover from this fatigue.
So why not give it a go?