Writer and illustrator Emma Mitchell describes her ongoing depression as “the grey slug”. She reflects on how reconnecting with nature impacts her own mood …
I’m not going to mince my words: I suffer from depression and have done for 25 years. Some days my brain feels as though it is mired in a dark quicksand of negativity; on others, layers of thick greyish cloud seem to descend, weighing down my thoughts and burgling my motivation. However the depression manifests itself, I find it difficult to move, and the urge to stay nestled indoors beneath a quilt and near to Netflix is strong. I know that if I do force myself to get up from the sofa, then the gloom can lift a little, and if I step outside and walk in the wood behind our cottage, the dreich thoughts may not leave entirely but they certainly retreat to the wings. For me, taking a daily walk among plants and trees is as medicinal as any talking cure or pharmaceutical. I know this sounds like an advice leaflet from a Victorian sanatorium, and there are echoes of the bracing strictures of a previous age here, but only in the last year have I realised quite how beneficial being in a green place can be, even if it is only for five or ten minutes. Simply getting out of the house and seeing the blackthorns and lime tree opposite our cottage induces a response in me that I can only describe as a neuronal sigh of relief: an unseen, silent reaction in the brain that is simultaneously soothing and curative. With each metre I walk, the foggy pall of depression begins to disperse.
Is there a scientific basis for the positive feelings that nature seems to confer? There are. Joint research from the University of Madrid and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences showed that simply seeing natural landscapes can speed up recovery from stress or mental fatigue, and hasten recovery from illness. Studies from the University of Exeter have demonstrated that the presence of vegetation in an urban landscape diminishes levels of depression, anxiety and stress levels in city dwellers, and the same raft of work showed that time spent outdoors alleviates low mood.
In recent years, research has shown that walking in a green space has a direct positive effect on several systems in our bodies. Blood pressure decreases, levels of stress hormone cortisol drop, anxiety is alleviated and pulse rates diminish in subjects who have spent time in nature and particularly among trees. Levels of activity in the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for our fight or flight response to stress, drop away, and the activity of a particular kind of white blood cell called natural killer (NK) cells, which can destroy virally infected and certain cancerous cells, increases when humans spend time in a woodland environment. These biochemical changes lasted for up to a month in the subjects who took part in these studies; the effects were not observed when they spent the same length of time in a city.
What are the biochemical mechanisms by which wild places alleviate depression and improve health in humans? Further research is beginning to provide tangible clues. Many plant species produce volatile compounds and oils, collectively known as phytoncides, in order to fight infection from viruses and bacteria. The inhalation of phytoncides triggers some of the same effects on our immune, endocrine (hormonal), circulatory and nervous systems. These oils do not have to be highly scented to have an effect on our bodies and most aren’t. The fresh “green” smell of a hedgerow is a combination of phytoncides from many different plants. We inhale them when we spend time in a wild place.
Levels of serotonin, the compound that carries signals between nerve cells in our brain are diminished in depressed patients and interacting with the natural world has been shown to influence serotonin levels. Just being outside can make a difference: when sunlight hits the skin or the eye’s retina it triggers the release of serotonin; on brighter days higher levels are released. When humans come into contact with benign soil bacteria such as Mycobacterium vaccae, proteins from its cell wall trigger a further release of serotonin from a specific group of nerve cells in our brains. So that bit of weeding can be good for more than just your herbaceous borders.
Finally, when we take some light exercise, such as walking, endorphins are released into the bloodstream. These are neurotransmitters that diminish the sensation of pain and induce a mild euphoria: a gentle, natural high. Combine these with the effects of light from the sun, compounds from the plants and benevolent bacteria from the soil, and it seems that walking in a garden, field or wood is like reaching into an invisible natural medicine cabinet. The science is still progressing, and there is much more to discover, but I’m fascinated that the chemistry of my brain, and my hormonal and nervous systems, are changing as I linger among trees and plants and that this can impact the tone of my thoughts and my mental health. At no point would I suggest that standard treatments for this condition be replaced by dawdling near a dog rose: I rely on antidepressants and talking cures to prevent my illness from becoming overwhelming, but depression varies in its grip on my mind, depending on the season and on daily stress levels. I have found that the level of respite provided by antidepressants and therapy is sometimes insufficient to prevent my thoughts falling down a well. Walking several times a week, even on days when I feel well, seems to have a cumulative effect and can help to make the dips in mood less vertiginous.
If low mood has you pinned to your sofa or bed … walk. Walk or wheel yourself outside. Seek out green, where furred or feathered things might be, even in your back garden. It really will help. As the novelist Alice Walker wrote: “I understood at a very early age that in nature, I felt everything I should feel in church but never did”.
From The Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us – A Diary, Emma Mitchell, Michael O’Mara Books, £14.99, out now.
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