‘By breathing fresh air and taking in the sights of surrounding nature instead of screens, we can clear our minds and connect to the present moment,’ official says




Contributed by Rosanna Shillolo, on behalf of Sustainable Orillia.

Spring is an ideal time to renew our relationship with nature, both for the benefit of the planet and for our own health and well being.

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) has marked May 3-9 as Mental Health Awareness Week. This presents a golden opportunity to explore the positive impact nature can have on our mental health. As many Canadians struggle with the negative impacts of COVID-19’s third wave, it’s important to discover sustainable ways to mitigate stress and anxiety.

Recent CMHA data reveal that 77 per cent of Canadian adults reported feeling negative emotions as a result of the current pandemic.

More locally, a November 2020 COVID impact survey of 2,350 Simcoe-Muskoka residents revealed that, in general, mental health has declined during the pandemic and that younger adults, aged 18 to 34, were more likely to rate their mental health as fair or poor.

Nearly half of all respondents indicated that feelings of stress and anxiety have worsened compared to prior to the pandemic. A recent study led by Sick Kids Hospital shows the troubling impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on child and youth mental health.  

There’s no question that, during this time of uncertainty, isolation, virtual learning and work challenges, many are facing unprecedented feelings of stress. So what can we do to mitigate this stress and to feel better?

We can start by getting outside. Simply by breathing fresh air and taking in the sights of surrounding nature instead of screens, we can clear our minds and connect to the present moment.

Depression can be considered an attachment to the past, whereas anxiety often stems from a fixation on things that have yet to happen. Yet feelings of contentment and relaxation can experienced most easily when we live in the here and now. Nature has a magical way of grounding us in real time.  

Access to green space is fundamental to reaping the numerous health benefits nature has to offer.

A 2015 Toronto Public Health study concluded that access to green space improves physical and mental health for everyone, but especially for children. Two significant studies (Van den Berg et al, 2010 and Neilson & Hanson, 2007) found the density of green spaces to be significantly associated with health outcomes such as lower stress levels and a greater resilience to stressful life events.

The notion of resilience is important to note because, although we may not be able to control our current situation, we can control our response to it. Going for a bike ride, a walk, or simply sitting on a park bench to observe the life around you can have a remarkable calming effect.

Nature is a powerful antidote to stress and has been found to promote healing in those who are sick. A landmark study (Ulrich, 1984) examined the relationship between patient recovery and green space.

Patients with a hospital room view of a natural setting recovered faster and required less medication than patients viewing an inorganic setting such as a brick wall or parking lot. This study, along with many others, concludes that the relationship between mental health and green space is statistically significant.  

I encourage you to make a list of easily accessible outdoor activities such as walking, bird watching or meditating that you can enjoy without having to venture too far. Maybe make a point of turning your lunch into a picnic on the grass during warmer weather.

Gardening is commonly considered to be therapeutic and can also be good physical exercise. There are many local hiking trails to discover and explore while maintaining a safe social distance.

The concept of “forest bathing,” an ancient Japanese practice of mindful immersion in a forest setting, is currently gaining popularity due to the attributed wellness benefits of basking in the slower pace and soothing rhythms of nature.  

These are just some examples of healthy green space use. Consider your own list of options as part of a mental health first aid kit that you can access when you feel the need to refresh your outlook and reset your frame of mind.

Practising self care is not selfish. Renewal is essential in nature; it is no less essential for our physical and mental well-being. As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, 2021, let’s take time to renew our spirits as we emerge from the long COVID winter.



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