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Let's talk about: Our senses

Introducing our 'Let's talk about' series where, each week, we will be talking about mental health and camping. This week we're talking our senses.

Last week we talked about Ecotherapy, the act of getting out into nature to relieve stress, low mood, mild anxiety and other mental health problems. 

This week it's Mental Health Awareness week and we're talking about our senses and how we interact with the world around us mentally. The five senses all play a part in lifting our mood and helping us feel more relaxed. Seeing the natural world, listening to the sounds of the countryside, touching plants and animals, breathing in fresh air and tasting, a lot of what we eat comes from nature.

Visit our Mental Wellbeing Hub to find out more about the benefits of nature and camping, advice, tips and charities and organisations that can help if you aren't feeling 100%.

Nature and its affect on our health

More people are forced to live in urban environments, with city stress, which they refer to as ‘hard fascination’. On the other hand, ‘soft fascination’ is the pleasure derived from visualising or experiencing green space. Even just watching a movie of outdoor scenery has been shown to lower stress.

Obtaining more soft fascination is called attentional restorative therapy (ART). Optimal ART involves being immersed in a new environment. This means you are more likely to benefit from going on a camping trip in the forest than simply looking at a woodland mural.

The importance of getting out of the city and into the countryside cannot be understated. There is a science behind the great outdoors, and much has been written about the health benefits of spending more time in green spaces and immersed in nature.

In 2014, a study was published on the benefits of ‘the great outdoors’ on mental health. The authors stated that having greater exposure to the natural world may well result in benefits to our mental wellbeing.

In a study published in 2017, researchers reviewed the benefits of nature on the five senses. They found evidence to suggest being outdoors is beneficial for them all.

Evidence that experiences of nature can benefit people has accumulated rapidly. [...] Humans are multisensory, and it seems likely that many benefits are delivered through the non-visual senses and these are potentially avenues through which a physiological mechanism could occur. [...] Natural sounds and smells underpin experiences of nature for many people, and this may well be rooted in evolutionary psychology. Tactile experiences of nature, particularly beyond animal petting, are understudied yet potentially fundamentally important. Tastes of nature, through growing and consuming natural foods, have been linked with a range of health and well-being benefits. Beyond the five senses, evidence is emerging for other non-visual pathways for nature experiences to be effective. These include ingestion or inhalation of phytoncides, negative air ions and microbes. 


How do our senses interact with nature?

Senses: sight (image of spectacles)

Sight Being able to see nature has been shown to have numerous health benefits. Studies show that hospital patients who have a bedroom that looks out over trees and plants are observed by nurses to have less negative mood and attitude and are discharged from hospital more quickly. Simply looking at nature reduces stress.

Senses: sound (image of sound waves)

Sound Humans show a preference for listening to sounds of nature such as water, wind, and animal sounds instead of city noise and traffic. Listening to bird song has been shown to reduce stress. Noise pollution, a big problem in cities, increases stress, cardiovascular symptoms, raised blood pressure, sleep disorders, and increases the risk of a heart attack.

Senses: smell (image of steam)

Smell Natural fragrances from plants have been shown to cause pleasure and relaxation and stimulate hunger and appetite. Our sense of smell is connected to the hippocampus in the brain, where we store our memories, and pleasant smells can help soothe our emotions. Much has now been realised about the therapeutic effect, for example, of essential oils.

Senses: taste (image of droplets)

Taste Food comes from nature. What we eat is fundamental to our health. The taste of food is crucial to our willingness to eat. It’s important to eat the right foods and for our bodies to get the right cues, so we know when we are full - many emotions re involved in what and how we eat. Eating outdoors, with lowered stress, may have advantages.

Senses: touch (image of braille)

Touch We must not underestimate the importance of touch – vital for humans for social contact and bonding. One way we can achieve this is by petting animals. Pets have been shown to reduce loneliness, improve health and reduce the need for doctors’ visits.

Outdoors, there is much more opportunity to touch the soil, the plants, and trees. Trees and plants emit substances called phytoncides - which we inhale. These have been shown to stimulate the immune system, and animal studies have been shown to reduce stress and improve relaxation.

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Read last week's blog Let's talk about: Ecotherapy

Next week we'll be focusing on the world around us.