Part of our 'Mental Health Awareness Week: Connect with nature' series. Hosted by the Mental Health Foundation Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 takes place from Monday 10th to Sunday 16th May.  

Living through the coronavirus pandemic has given many people a new appreciation of the natural world. During lockdown, more people noticed the wildlife around them, in their garden, neighbourhood and local area.

As the ever-constant buzz of traffic noise became a distant memory, people started to tune into the birdsong instead. As home-schooling became the norm and entertainment was thin on the ground, families sought out adventure on long walks, and home-workers explored the local footpaths on their lunchbreaks.

During this very challenging year, we have sought solace and comfort in nature, and have re-discovered how vital it is to both our physical and our mental health.

There is mounting scientific evidence that nature is good for us. In a survey conducted by Natural England during April – June last year, 85 per cent of participants reported that being in nature made them feel happy.

The benefits to physical health were evidenced in a study conducted by the University of East Anglia in 2018, which showed that populations that have greater access to greenspace are more likely to report overall good health – including a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, high blood pressure and more. Indeed, according to research from Natural England, if every household in England were provided with good access to quality greenspace it could save the NHS an estimated £2.1 billion.

There are countless different ways that you can connect with nature and enjoy some of these benefits for yourself. Stretching your legs and going for a walk is an obvious one - reducing blood pressure, lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and regulating your melatonin levels, which help you to get a good night’s sleep. The Forest of Marston Vale has a wealth of green spaces to discover – check out the ‘explore’ menu on the website for links to walking routes close to you.

Girl sitting in a forest

In Japan, taking a walk in a woodland is recognised as a therapy in itself called ‘Shinrin-Yoku’, or ‘Forest bathing’. There are 62 areas in Japan which have been designated as a ‘forest therapy base’ or ‘forest therapy road’, places where the population is encouraged to visit for physical and mental rejuvenation.

Japanese scientists believe that walking amongst trees can strengthen the immune system, because walkers inhale phytoncides (molecules secreted by trees to defend themselves against bacteria) as they wander.

So how do you ‘bathe’ in a forest to reap these benefits? It’s all about simply immersing yourself in the woodland experience. Leave your phone at home and head for your favourite woodland - there are plenty to choose from in the Forest of Marston Vale! Wander wherever your fancy takes you – there’s no need to follow a set route. The object is to really focus on your surroundings mindfully with all your senses. Touch the bark, inhale the fresh air, listen to the birdsong, take time to enjoy the sunlight through the leaves. There’s no rush to get anywhere – take as long, or as little, as you like!

There are many other ways that you can actively engage with nature to improve your own health – right from your own home. Bee-friendly flowers can be grown in a window box, balcony or garden. Keeping a few well-stocked bird feeders can bring real pleasure too – you can even buy feeders that attach to a window so you can see any visitors up close.

The benefits of the ‘Natural Health Service’ are now so well documented that the Government is currently funding seven ‘green prescribing’ pilot schemes around the UK, to explore the opportunities for people to connect with the environment to support health through activities such as conservation volunteering and group visits to greenspaces. The healing power of nature is certainly starting to be recognised, and in future, the local GP surgery may be offering prescriptions for woodland walks and outdoor exercise alongside the more usual treatments!


For tips on how to take care of your mental health and wellbeing during times of uncertainty visit:

If you have been struggling with your mental health through lockdown then local help and guidance is available - download the 'Coronavirus and looking after your mental health' toolkit provided by Bedford Borough Council, Central Bedfordshire Council and Milton Keynes Council.

Protect the Forest for years to come and help us look after your local woodland – for just over £1 a week you can safeguard local green spaces for future generations.

Become a Friend of the Forest today.