To mark Mental Health Awareness Week this month, LawCare invites you to reclaim your lunchbreak and recharge in nature, with all round benefits for health and productivity

Many of us have lost our connection with nature, spending most of our time indoors, at home, in an office or in a car. Sometimes even having a lunchbreak seems luxurious – most of us bolt food down at our desks so as not to miss a minute of the working day.

However, as humans we aren’t meant to spend so much time indoors. Our ancestors were hunter-gatherers spending most of their time outdoors amongst trees, by water, studying plants and animals, in all seasons and weather. Could our health and wellbeing be compromised because we spend less time outdoors? There are many powerful reasons why we should down tools and step outside once a day, so in this month of Mental Health Awareness Week, try and use your lunchbreak to get outside.

Help your productivity

We often think we don’t have time to take a proper break during the working day, but having a break outside can make all the difference to your productivity and give you perspective on a work issue. Researchers found that time spent in nature can renew our attention spans when they are flagging after a hard day’s work or an extended period staring at a screen – this is known as attention restoration therapy (ART). This is supported by research from the University of Madrid and Norwegian University of Life Sciences that found that seeing natural landscapes can speed up recovery from stress or mental fatigue.

Reduce anxiety and stress

Being anxious, stressed or depressed can mean you don’t want to go outside, preferring to hunker down indoors. Whilst this may be your natural instinct, going outside and being with nature can reduce your anxiety and stress. There is scientific evidence that we feel calmer when we look at trees, for example: this is known as biophilia.

Forest bathing, or Shinrin-Yoku, the Japanese practice of spending time slowly and quietly in forests, is proven to lower the stress hormones of cortisol and adrenalin, suppress the fight or flight instinct, lower blood pressure, boost the immune system, and improve sleep. Not only that, but the activity of white blood cells known as natural killer (NK) cells increases when humans spend time in woods. You don’t have to visit a wood or forest every day – these biochemical benefits last for up to a month.

In addition there is evidence that exercise outside can be more effective than antidepressants for those with mild to moderate depression, and research from the University of Exeter showed that the presence of birds in a landscape can help to lift depression. It is also well known that time spent with animals, or gardening, has a positive impact on your mental health.

Effects on the brain

There are several physiological and neurological changes that take place when we go outside which can boost the happiness chemicals in our brain. Serotonin is a compound that carries signals between nerve cells in our brain, and there is a link between the levels of serotonin in our brain and our mood. Time spent in the natural world, and particularly in sunlight, triggers an increase in serotonin. Exploring a new environment outside, and foraging, collecting shells, leaves or berries, releases dopamine which helps regulate movement, attention, learning, and emotional responses. Cold water swimming is shown to boost serotonin, oxytocin (the love hormone), and endorphins, which reduces pain, relieves stress, and enhances pleasure. It also helps to control our fight or flight instinct.

Nature and mindfulness

Meditation, or mindfulness, is proven to reduce stress; however some find it hard to get to grips with. Nature offers many ways to be mindful without even realising, whether it’s birdwatching in your garden, watching a sunrise or sunset, looking at a bee buzz round a flower, stargazing at night or listening to the sound of the sea. These are all ways to help you be calm and still and focus on the present moment, which can help you maintain good mental health and wellbeing and keep stress at bay.

Where to find support

LawCare provides emotional support to all legal professionals, support staff and their concerned family members. You can call our confidential helpline on

0800 279 6888, email us at support@lawcare.org.uk, or access online chat and other resources, including Mental Health Awareness Week materials, at
www.lawcare.org.uk

Resources and useful links

Elizabeth Rimmer
The Author

Elizabeth Rimmer is chief executive of LawCare

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