When walking in the woods we retread routes set down by our distant ancestors. They once roamed here in search of food and to find it among the background vegetation they relied upon highly developed pattern recognition skills. Each woodland and open glade was scanned using ‘effortless attention’, a state of awareness that can be sustained over many hours with little mental exertion. Alert focus coming into play only when required – does that snapping twig signal a predator? That intense fear response, which kicks in before the rational mind has chance to register the threat, remains unchanged since ancient times.
For better or for worse most of our nutrition now comes from supermarkets, yet we still have the same brains as our foraging forebears. Where does the instinct for nature go when most of us have no real need to grow or forage? Arguably there has never been a better time to ask this question. Nature connectedness, arising from biophilia – our innate preference for natural environments, is still part of us. We are now rediscovering how this link can reduce stress and provide lasting relief from certain mental health conditions.
It comes as little surprise that our response to nature, and to woodland in particular, is an antidote to the way we spend most of our waking hours. Much of our behaviour is task-oriented: start a job, do it well, do it fast. Repeat for eight hours a day, five days a week and then, if you have any energy leftover, achieve more. Pace is driven by targets rather than internal rhythms.
The human brain did not evolve to maintain this level of ‘directed attention’ for prolonged periods. Push it too far and the sympathetic nervous system is flooded with chemical messages that induce the fight, flight or freeze response. The parts of the brain dedicated to survival can end up being continuously activated by unremitting stress, as though being perpetually hunted by a ravenous tiger.
Entering a woodland means passing into another kingdom, one ruled by plants, fungi and micro-organisms. The light, the smells, the sights and sounds all change when passing from the open to the enclosed. Nature’s rich tapestry unfolds, fascinating all of our senses. Minds wander as they take in the surroundings; thoughts come and go.
Nature’s complexity calms us because ‘effortless attention’ activates the parasympathetic nervous system while suppressing the sympathetic nervous system. These effects can be measured after just a few minutes spent inside a woodland: salivary cortisol levels are reduced, pulse rates are lowered and blood pressure drops.
Stress levels are only one measure of woodland’s health-giving benefits. Woodland organisms release compounds that are known to directly boost our immune systems, notably the activity of killer cells. Walking among trees increases oxygen uptake, assisting cell repair. Both lung and heart function are improved. Finally, the reward for taking exercise is a release of feel-good endorphins. What other environment has so much to offer?
The next time you need to unwind ask yourself when you last made the time to watch the shadows shift and lengthen? Try losing yourself within a pattern of fallen leaves, ears attuned to the wind whistling through the canopy. Taste berries, smell the earth and run fingertips over mossy tree bark.
Come to the woods for a walk and stay to daydream.
Fran will be leading Wellbeing Wednesdays: two-hour long nature walks and activities at Ecclesall Woods on the fourth Wednesday of each month, starting in March 2020. Time: 10am – 12pm. Tickets: £4, available on the day – cash only. Meet outside the main entrance to the Woodland Discovery Centre, Abbey Lane, S7 2QZ.