Nature – The Ultimate Tonic

Written by Alanna Rossi, Illustrations by Jaclyn Simon

On my worst days, when I feel anxious and the world feels overwhelming I find myself turning to nature to comfort me. It’s a balm to soothe my nerves and never fails to put my racing mind at ease. Whether it’s the fresh air on my face or the first daffodils of spring, there is an abundance of things to notice if you pay attention. 

I try to focus on the physical world around me versus the digital world on my phone or computer when I feel anxiety creeping in. We live in a digital era with phones that are more computers than anything, and homes full of technology. This isn’t always a bad thing, but too much of a good thing… Well, you know how the saying goes. 

Too often we get stuck in a pattern of checking our phones for breaking news or to “check in” on our friends and family on social media to see what everyone is up to. We’ve all been there. We tell ourselves we’ll jump online “just for a minute” to see what’s going on and before we know it two hours have passed. The constant barrage of the twenty-four hour news cycle and social media is a lot for the average human being to handle. It’s too much information for us to process while we sit on our couches or lie in bed scrolling absentmindedly. 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I have been taking a much needed break from social media and limiting the time I spend online. I found myself stuck in a pattern of spending too much time on my phone checking the news and my Instagram feed. My mental health was deteriorating and I knew it was time to put the phone down. Let’s face it, social media is pretty terrible for our mental health (no, you can’t change my mind). 

I wanted to do something for myself to make the most of being offline so I decided to start a nature journal. I love going for walks around our neighbourhood or at local parks, and I always take photos and make observations about what I see. A nature journal is a way for me to record these observations while at the same time expressing creativity. It has kept me grounded and present when I’m normally too busy worrying about the future. I’ve noticed things I wouldn’t have noticed before, but since I’ve slowed down I’m able to see it all. Being more observant and slowing down has been amazing for my mental health and what’s even cooler is that there’s science to back this up. 

One of the best things you can do for your mental health is to get outside. Studies have shown that spending time in nature has incredible benefits for your mental health. You might go for a walk for exercise but have you ever considered what it’s doing for your mood? You probably notice how much better you feel after a walk around your neighbourhood or your local park. Research shows that spending just twenty minutes in nature drops your cortisol (stress hormone) level and if you’re able to spend two hours a week outdoors, the benefits get even better. 

Forest bathing (known as shinrin-yoku in Japan) is the act of “bathing” in the forest or taking in the forest through our senses. It is not exercise — it’s simply connecting with nature using all of its senses. Sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. By allowing ourselves to connect with nature, we are giving our nervous systems a break and a chance to reset itself. 

In British Columbia, and other provinces, you can now get a “nature prescription” from your health-care provider. Started by the BC Parks Foundation in November 2020, PaRx is Canada’s first nature prescription program designed to encourage patients to spend more time outdoors. Health-care providers like doctors, therapists and nurses can register for the program and then “prescribe” nature to patients dealing with mental health challenges. In Vancouver for example, the UBC Botanical Garden and Nitobe Memorial Garden are two participating spaces where individuals can show their PaRx prescription to gain unlimited free admission into the gardens.

Another reason why nature is so important? We’re moving farther away from it. More than 50% of people live in urban areas, and by 2050 that number is predicted to jump to 70%. Urbanisation has been associated with increased levels of mental illness including anxiety and depression. When we move into cities, we are moving further away from nature and while some cities embrace green space and make it a priority, others do not, making it challenging for people to reconnect with the natural world. The PaRx program is just one initiative which will hopefully encourage people to get outside and spend more time in nature. It’s always good to check out other initiatives that are happening in your community or volunteer to be part of the change. 

Your mental health should always be a priority. Whether you spend less time on your phone and commit to spending more time outside, small changes can have a big impact on how you feel. I encourage you to make some changes and enjoy the benefits.