Nothing soothes the soul like being in nature

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Evelyn Lewin

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Photo: Aaron McCoy

Nothing soothes the soul like being in nature - and the good news is you can benefit from the great outdoors without leaving your living room, writes Evelyn Lewin.

As a life coach, Aerlie Wildy, 38, knows the importance of work-life balance. A key part of that balance, she believes, involves spending time in nature. So when her family recently moved from the city to a small country town in the Adelaide Hills, she wasn't surprised her sense of well-being improved.

"The move has been positive on so many levels," says Wildy. "I love going for walks, feeling the fresh country air, seeing wildlife; I feel a great sense of clarity, joy and wellness."

And who can't relate to that sense of wellness from time spent outdoors? The reason we find nature so relaxing is in-built, says Sydney-based psychologist and coach Sarah-Jayne McCormick. "Early human beings didn't evolve in offices and concrete blocks, we evolved out in nature. So there's something we find intrinsically soothing about it."

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Not only is it emotionally soothing, our brains perform differently there. McCormick cites attention restoration theory, which proposes that there are two types of attention: directed attention ("Where we need to concentrate and it's very demanding"), and involuntary attention ("Where we can switch off"). McCormick says when we're in nature, we use our involuntary attention, a process she claims is highly restorative. "It allows us to decompress; it's almost meditative."

So if a simple walk outside is good for us, it makes sense that moving to a greener area has an even greater effect - an idea supported by new research published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology in January this year. A study that tracked more than 1000 participants over a five-year period found that, on average, people who moved to greener areas experienced an immediate yet lasting improvement in their mental health. Meanwhile, those who moved to more built-up areas suffered worse mental health.

While that's great news for Wildy and other "tree-changers", you don't need to move to the country to reap the benefits of nature. In fact, you don't even need to go outdoors; simply looking out the window at a natural view can do the trick, says McCormick, who adds that research shows office workers who face a natural view report "higher levels of life satisfaction" than those without a view.

But we can't all request a room with a view. The next best thing, says McCormick, is to surround yourself with natural images. A 2008 paper in Psychological Science showed that people performed better in memory tasks after looking at images of nature compared to those who looked at urban scenes. McCormick says this is because even looking at images of nature helps ease mental fatigue.

So keeping photos on your desk of your latest outdoor escapade, a picture of a waterfall on your wall and a wildlife image as your screen saver will be good for your brain. Even better, invite a touch of nature indoors: a pot plant or bunch of flowers on your desk, or some potted herbs in your kitchen at home. "Obviously the effect isn't going to be the same as actually going outside, but anything that involves reconnecting with nature is wonderful for us," assures McCormick.

To get the most out of your interaction with nature, make your connection water-based. McCormick says studies show water is the environment we respond best to in terms of mood improvement and feelings of calmness. Which is perhaps why so many dentists' waiting rooms have fish tanks, and so many day spas offer water-based therapies.

Listening to natural sounds is also good for us, says McCormick. So you might want to spend less time mocking your partner's Sounds of the Forest CD, and more time focusing on that distant call of the bullfrog.

Of course, the best way to get the most out of nature is to actually go outside, preferably to somewhere green - as long as, once you're there, you switch on all your senses, says Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle. He says we expend "enormous energy" blocking out our senses, rather than tuning into them and relishing each one: "That, to me, is the very definition of being less alive".

While he says the more time you spend outside the better, even stepping out of your office for a few minutes and looking up at the changing clouds will help you feel more alive. As McCormick adds, "Any opportunity you have to get outside in nature is like having a mini holiday."