Connecting with nature can be the best medicine – Catherine Calderwood

Humans have always been dependent on and deeply connected to their natural surroundings, writes Catherine Calderwood

Enjoying the outdoors is beneficial for our health and therapeutic for both mental and physical ailments. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Birds caught my attention the other morning. Little brown ones fluttering and twittering around the bushes, audible over the rattle and roar of nearby traffic, their flurry of activity able to interrupt my train of thought as I walked into work.

I smiled at their distinct presence in such an urban environment. It was a moment of connection with nature. ‘Mindfulness’ is awareness of ourselves with the environment around us and many cultures recognise this interaction.

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‘Shinrin-yoku’ a Japanese term refers to the health benefits of being in a forest. Ibsen’s Norwegian term ‘friluftsliv’ tends now to describe enjoying being outdoors, connecting with nature.

That these sentiments are so strong in Norway and indeed other Nordic countries perhaps goes some way to explain why the feature so prominently on the United Nations 2019 list of Happiest Countries.

Take a moment to listen to that bird singing, admire the coloured veins in the plant leaf or feel the warmth of the sun on your forearm.

Such appreciations of nature are crucial salves and therapies for achieving and maintaining our well-being.

It is not just that green is a calming colour, recognised by interior designers and paint shops. Being outdoors is much more than seeing green. It is well recognised with good evidence as being beneficial for our health and therapeutic for both mental and physical ailments.

Prescriptions to encourage being outdoors with nature are being promoted from NHS Shetland to southern England. Such programmes are modest in both expenditure and resource but effective in any one individual’s support and treatment.

Anxieties are reduced, mood raised and, depending on the activity, both blood pressure and body weight benefit. As a minimum it provides an effective distraction from the pressures and stressors of modern, particularly urban, living.

Urbanisation and industrialisation has pushed nature out of the way. We need to re-embrace it, to support it now for our health and also for the health of our planet. For millennia and their generations, humans here have been dependent on and deeply connected to their natural surroundings. It should
not surprise us that environmental triggers connect deeply with our primeval self, into our psyche and alter our moods and emotions.

Individually we need not necessarily seek the wide open space of which Scotland has much, but even in the most built up of areas, any one of us can notice and consider a small garden, the green of a municipal park, a cemetery or even shrubs beside the supermarket.

Let us get out and find a patch of nature. Take a few moments and actually feel the wind, hear notes the birds are singing and see the differing shades of green.

And the birds? I thought back to them several times that day. They were chaffinches.

A different time, a different place but with the same effect they may even have been three craws, sitting upon a wall.

Catherine Calderwood is Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer and she is grateful to Colin Selby, Consultant Respiratory Physician, for his contribution.