Barry Muir | Guest contributor
Editor’s note: With so many disasters in recent years, as well as increasing violent and other crime, there is more stress around us and in our lives… Getting out in the peace and solitude of semi-isolated natural places such as forests (even parks and gardens) can be very therapeutic; as can meditating beside running water such as creeks (especially in forest), or the movement of ocean waves. For me, much soothing energy comes from being absorbed in nature and its movement and sound.
I have often walked in forest until I found a spot that feels good, sat on a rock or log (avoiding bities) and focused on the movement and sounds of nature around me – for example, becoming absorbed in the action of busy ants on the ground; movement and sounds of leaves in breeze; birds calling, etc. Focusing by listening and watching such natural things can be very beneficial.
Such meditations, and reconnecting with our fellow birders to go birding, are good techniques for helping ourselves thru’ difficult times.
The recent Tropical Cyclone Jasper flood disaster in Far North Queensland prompted me to ask my ecologist mycologist husband, Barry, to explain in layman’s terms, below, how nature can help…
Those of us stressed from Cyclone Jasper floods; storms, heatwaves, bushfires; and complexities and worries of modern life in general, can gain from spending time in nature. By “nature” I mean amongst trees and other vegetation, be it in natural forest or even parks and spacious gardens with lots of trees. This phenomenon of peacefulness even has a name: the Japanese call it Shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” (Tsunetsugu et al. 2010).
We now understand why this sense of peace of mind descends on us. It usually takes about an hour or two in the forest to become obvious, and it is caused by chemical vapours called phytoncides emitted by specialised fungi called endophytes that live in the leaves and stems of plants. The phytoncides are usually volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
There are more than 5,000 VOCs that defend plants by protecting them from bacteria, fungi, and insect attack. Phytoncides work by inhibiting or preventing growth of the attacking organism. Humans have used concentrated forms of these phytoncides for centuries – we call it aromatherapy.
Phytoncides possess an inherent medicinal property. Their health benefits range from treating stress, immunosuppression, high blood pressure, respiratory diseases, anxiety, and pain, to anti-microbial, anti-septic, and anti-cancer effects. The inhalation of phytoncide-rich forest air has been shown to normalise immune function and neuroendocrine hormone levels, and thus, help to restore physiological and psychological health.
A two-hour walk in the forest increases specialised human cell activity that can last for days. Common forest VOCs can reduce inflammation and oxidative stress. Forest air creates a relaxation response and lowers nervous system activity, and reduces cortisol (stress hormone) levels, and a substance called β-pinene has anti-depressive properties, and exposure to certain VOCs can reduce blood glucose levels.
It's worth noting that many of these phytoncides are called ‘essential oils’. The term comes from the fact that they are essences (extracts) from plants. The term has been used by marketers to suggest they are “essential” to our wellbeing, so don’t be fooled into buying bottled low-quality or even artificial phytoncides – get them for free out in the forest.
It is now recognised that green spaces near schools promote cognitive development in children, and green views near children’s homes promote self-control behaviours. Adults living in public housing units in neighbourhoods with more green space showed better attentional functioning than those in units with less access to natural environments. Experiments have found that being exposed to natural environments improves working memory, cognitive flexibility and attentional control, while exposure to urban environments (buildings, concrete, and few trees) is linked to attention deficits.
Nature is not only nice to have, but it’s a must-have for physical health and cognitive functioning. Grab your binoculars and go birding, or just a comfy fold-up chair and go sit in the forest or Botanic Garden. You will be healthier for it!
Robbins J. (2020). Ecopsychology: how immersion in nature benefits your health. Yale Environment E360 (https://e360.yale.edu/features/ecopsychology-how-immersion-in-nature-benefits-your-health)
Thangaleela S. et al. (2022). Essential oils, phytoncides, aromachology, and aromatherapy – A review. Appl. Sci. 12: 4495. (doi.org/10.3390/app12094495)
Tree Canada (2023). Trees - our natural allies for living longer, healthier and happier lives (https://treecanada.ca/article/trees-our-natural-ally-for-living-longer-healthier-and-happier-lives/)
Yoku Tsunetsugu et al. (2010). Trends in research related to ‘Shinrin-yoku' (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing) in Japan. Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine 15(1): 27–37. (doi: 10.1007/s12199-009-0091-z)