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How the 'soft chaos' of nature reduces stress and helps us physically heal

Come with us, on a walk through Dublin’s Botanic Gardens. / YouTube

IT’S ACCEPTED WISDOM that a walk in the wild or a stroll in the park can give your mental health a boost – but what’s the science behind the sentiment?

While the therapeutic benefits of being around nature have been documented since long ago, the discipline of ‘horticultural therapy’ has expanded over recent decades.

As Botanic Gardens guide and horticulturalist Gary Mentanko demonstrated to us on a walk around the north Dublin attraction, the physical – as well as mental – benefits of being around nature are now being studied more widely.

“The idea is that we do better when we’re exposed to nature or able to get to green spaces – and that it affects us physically, mentally and has a kind of binding agent, in society, to help us manage ourselves better,” Mentanko explained, as he gave a taster of a new tour he developed to coincide with start of the new year.

“We live in our cities and we live in our modern societies but we have an evolved response to be around nature.

They’ve done lots of studies to show that people who live near green spaces – let’s say tree-lined streets – they have lower incidences of things like diabetes and they have lower cardiovascular problems.

Not even real 

Even pictures or photos of nature can have a beneficial effect, he explained – referencing a study carried out at Uppsala University Hospital in Sweden.

Cardiac surgery patients were shown pictures of a tree-lined stream, said Mentanko, “and those people were healing faster than their other counterparts that maybe had an abstract picture or a stone wall image in front of them”.

At the same time as this they’re using less pain medication, they’re using lower doses of pain medication. So there’s something about observing forms of nature that is appealing to us and probably helps our stress levels to come down – and when you’ve higher stress levels you physically heal slower.

shutterstock_100939573 Shutterstock / rosario puglisi Dublin's Botanic Gardens (pictured in springtime) Shutterstock / rosario puglisi / rosario puglisi

Mental health benefits 

In terms of boosting mental health, studies have shown being around nature can be beneficial to people suffering from anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress.

Referencing a study carried out at the University of Utah, he explained how just a few days of exposure to nature could vastly improve a person’s decision-making processes. The authors of the study described it as the ‘three day effect’.

People who are out in nature walking around – after three days their cognitive abilities start to improve immensely compared to city dwellers.

Exposure to nature gives a person’s prefrontal cortex a break, he explained.

“This is where all your decision-making is happening, and when you have stress or you have anxiety, these things start to build up.”

Hikers exposed to the ‘three day effect’ gave vastly improved performances in cognitive tests carried out after they returned from their nature retreats.

“There’s this soft chaos of nature which helps to quiet our brains and makes us more creative,” Mentanko said. Other studies have shown that benefits can be gained from even a daily walk around a city park, he explained.

You can find details of Gary’s tour – taking place as part of the First Fortnight festival – here

Read: You’re twice as likely to develop mental health problems if you smoke, HSE says >

Read: Ireland’s mental health festival is underway – here’s what’s happening >

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