Recently I spent a day wandering around the Sussex countryside near where I live. It was a hot, muggy day, interspersed with light rain that served to cool my wife and I from the incessant heat. We tramped through the shade of a forest and marvelled at the colours, smells and sounds hidden within a few miles of our home. As we left the woods and stepped into the sun we were presented with a beautiful view of the South Downs.
'A walk in the countryside has the potential to become a place of freedom, a rest from the issues that life throws up'
I was feeling first hand the therapeutic benefit of the countryside. Just simply walking with only the route to think about was wonderfully centring. I remember looking around, seeing only trees and hills, and although I knew my town was at the other side of the wood, another part of me felt I could have been anywhere. The rest of life’s worries were left at home, and whilst I was in the countryside they could stay there until I was ready to return to them.
A walk in the countryside has the potential to become a place of freedom, a rest from the issues that life throws up. The physical things in life expand and take up more space. The feel of the ground underfoot, the plants, trees, flowers and streams occupy your senses, leaving less space for other thoughts, problems and worries.
I later found out that the Japanese have been recommending this sort of thing for over 30 years, they call it 'Shinrin-yoku' – ‘forest bathing’, and many scientific studies have noted that ‘forest bathing’ helps to lower blood pressure, cortisol levels in the brain, and reduces stress, hostility and depression. A few years ago in the UK, MIND carried out a study which showed that those who participated in ‘Green Exercise’ had increased fitness, self esteem and decreased depression, anger and tiredness.
I wondered what it was about the countryside that helped with relaxation, and found that studies have shown that in comparison to walking through urban areas, the countryside engages the mind but in a different way, giving the brain a rest. I imagine this is because in the countryside you are taking things in, rather than having things forced at you. In urban areas there are cars, people, signs, lights, sirens, all aiming to get your attention, whereas in the countryside you take it in, you look for the wildlife, listen out for the sounds, choose to take in the views. I imagine this way of being helps counteract the brain fatigue of urban living, giving you a chance to wipe the slate clean and relax for a while before your senses are assaulted again as you arrive back in town.
Our world can seem very small, cramped, and full of people, likely because over 80% of us live in cities or towns in the UK, but these urban areas take up just 7% of the UK's area. I find walking in the countryside reminds me of how large our country actually is. Sometimes we’ll walk for hours without seeing anyone at all. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise, as there are over 140,000 miles of footpaths and public rights of way in the UK. There’s a lot of space out there to explore, and with all the benefits, why not get your boots on and give it a try. What have you got to lose?
Chris Mounsher is a BACP registered humanistic counsellor working in private practice in Brighton and Haywards Heath. He offers both long term and short term counselling and has particular experience working with anxiety, addiction, depression, low self-esteem and relationship difficulties.