Working as an NHS GP, I see an ever-increasing number of patients presenting with mental health problems. Stress, anxiety, panic attacks and depression are most common but I am also seeing more patients with eating disorders, bipolar, schizophrenia and personality disorders.
According to the charity MIND, one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. This is reflected by the fact that 40% of all GP consultations in 2018 were regarding mental health.
Many people feel that there is still a significant stigma when it comes to talking about their mental health.
We all have physical health and are quite happy discussing our back pain or headache, so why are we so reluctant to discuss our mental health?
Some of the most successful companies in the world today have been actively looking out for the "emotional health" of their employees for many years now. In a 2014 Guardian article, Chade-Meng Tan, the head of mindfulness at Google, said
"If you are a company leader who says employees should be encouraged to exercise, nobody looks at you funny. The same thing is happening to meditation and mindfulness, because now that it's become scientific, it has been demystified. It's going to be seen as fitness for the mind."
I believe that Tan is correct and we must all try and set aside time to exercise our minds. For many people, going to the hills is one way of doing this, and "Mountains for the Mind" is a great way to raise awareness. Their ever-growing Facebook group, with members sharing inspiring stories and photographs, highlights the positive effect that being outdoors can have on people.
The Science Bit:
We all know that exercise improves health outcomes in medical conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure, but there is growing evidence that it can play a key role in improving our mental health as well.
What is particularly interesting, is that outdoor exercise, such as hiking, climbing or cycling, has superior benefits when compared to indoor exercise.
Click here to read the evidence in Niedermeier et al's 2017 paper or here for a meta-analysis review. Another study, carried out in Scandinavia, by Sturm, showed that a structured hiking program lead to significant reductions in hopelessness, depression and suicidal ideation in patients who had previously attempted suicide. There is much more available evidence, and do get in touch if you would like to discuss this area further, but I hope the above links have highlighted some of the evidence regarding mental health and the outdoors.
There are also some interesting psychological theories regarding spending time outside, be it in the mountains or elsewhere. Clough at al, writing in the New Zealand Journal of Sports Medicine, discuss the multiple psychological improvements that can occur as illustrated below:
These positive effects are thought to occur as a result of something called:
This concept suggests that modern life and urban environments cause cognitive fatigue. Being outdoors reduces this fatigue, as fewer demands are placed upon executive functioning. This in turn allows for restoration: like a form of recharging.
This is particularly important as we seem to be spending so much time looking at phones, computers and TVs- even writing this makes me feel like I should go outside for a bit!(although I did walk the dog earlier this afternoon).
Apple and Android are now catching on to this and trying to improve our "digital well-being" through blue light filters and do-not-disturb settings, which must surely be a good thing, but it is important for us to encourage people to see the world and appreciate things away from a screen, which reminds me of a video that was doing the rounds on Facebook recently:
A similar concept has long been practised in Japan:
森林浴 Shinrin-Yoku Forest Bathing
As well as having improved mental health, people who regularly participate in this have been found to have significantly lower blood pressure, reductions in circulating adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol levels and improved autonomic nervous system function. There is also evidence that forest bathing can increase the number of circulating natural killer T cells, for up to 30 days after the event!
So what are you waiting for....
Go outside and boost your immune system!
Well that is the second blog done and dusted- any feedback is much appreciated.
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Bye for now