Air QualityEnvironment & Climate

The science behind green prescriptions & shinrin-yoku. How green spaces are supporting mental health.

By June 15, 2022 No Comments

Regardless of which technologies are being developed to reduce the impact of climate change on our environment, one thing is for certain; preserving planet Earth’s natural order is the ultimate goal.

Whether you are holed up in a laboratory engineering the very latest zero emissions engine, or you are out in the field growing algae for biofuel, there is one thing all of these endeavours have in common & that is the preservation of Earth’s natural resources & our diminishing green spaces.

One of the growing challenges facing the human race, aside from the impact of advancing climate change, is the overwhelming mental health issues which are surfacing because of it. Even in a pre-Covid world, life was fast paced & concerns for Earth’s future caused a global anxiety based on unknown quantities & conflicting scientific data.

As we ease into the ‘new normal’ living alongside Covid19 & many people start to adjust to an altered way of life; the mental health impact of lockdowns, bereavement & long term Covid side affects are taking their toll. On top of this with cost of living rises (UK) & the repeated news of global climate temperatures spiralling out of control, sea levels rising & air pollution at an all time high; it is little wonder that mental health issues are on the rise.

However, as mentioned above, the primary objective for all those involved in the development of technologies & natural approaches to mitigate the impact of climate change, is the preservation of planet Earth & it’s natural resources & a huge proportion of these are green spaces.

There is growing evidence that gardening & spending time in green spaces or immersed in nature, can benefit our mental health, an important consideration at a time when the UK NHS is stretched & one in four adults are experiencing mental illness. (1)

Research conducted by the University of Exeter & the Royal Horticultural Society charity, published in Elsevier’s Landscape & Urban Planning, analysed data from nearly 8,000 people collected by Natural England between 2009 and 2016.

The research, conducted with funding from Innovate UK & NIHR, found that people who spend time in the garden are significantly more likely to report general good health, higher psychological wellbeing & greater physical activity levels than those who do not spend time in the garden.

The study found the benefits of gardening to health & wellbeing were similar to the difference in health between people living in the wealthiest parts of the country, compared to the poorest. The benefits applied whether people spent their time gardening or simply relaxing. People who regularly spend time in their garden were also more likely to visit nature elsewhere once a week.

The study also found that people with access to a private garden had higher psychological wellbeing & those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines. These benefits were in comparison to people who did not have a garden or outdoor space. (2)

Research such as that undertaken by the University of Exeter & RHS, is giving valuable insights for medical professionals.

The NHS for example are increasingly prescribing time in nature & community gardening projects as part of “green prescriptions” aimed at tackling such mental health issues as anxiety, loneliness & depression (3)

For some people this will be in the form of green social prescribing, which links patients to nature-based interventions & activities, such as local walking for health schemes, community gardening or food-growing projects. (3)

The UK is not the first to enable those suffering with mental health issues to take advantage of the healing qualities in nature & green spaces. In Japan they have embraced the mental & physical benefits of “forest bathing” or shinrin-yoku for decades.

The term “forest bathing” emerged in Japan in the 1980s as a physiological & psychological exercise called shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing” or “taking in the forest atmosphere”). The purpose was twofold: to offer an eco-antidote to tech-boom burnout & to inspire residents to reconnect with & protect the country’s forests. (4)

There is a wealth of research from around the world, particularly from Japan, which proves that being in a forest, or wooded area, really can have a healing effect.

It has been shown that trees and plants in these environments release antimicrobial essential oils, called phytoncides.  Phytoncides protect plants from germs and have a host of health benefits for people. These oils can boost our mood & immune system function, they have been shown to normalise blood pressure & heart rate, as well as improve stress, anxiety, concentration, sleep & stimulate creativity.  (5)

There is some evidence that they may even help fight cancer & depression.  In some countries like Japan, forest-bathing is already recognised as a clinical therapy & is available on prescription. (5)

Therefore, how can individuals gain access to the benefits of gardening or access to green spaces?

Garden’s, gardening & rewilding

If you are lucky enough to have a garden, no matter how big or small; connecting to your green space can be hugely beneficial. Whether you like to idea of growing your own fruits & vegetables or like the idea of a flower garden; gardening can be inexpensive, but hugely rewarding.


One of the biggest gardening trends currently being encouraged is ‘rewilding’ or letting at least part of a garden remain wild.

One of the leading rewilding projects in the UK is found at the Knepp Estate, Sussex. Once the farm had been closed in 2000, in 2002 the Knepp Estate won Countryside Stewardship funding to restore the Repton park in the middle of the Estate. It was then that Charlie Burrell (grandson of the original farmers) realised the vision he had for the land. The process he had in mind was a ‘process-led’, non-goal-orientated project where, as far as possible, nature takes the driving seat – an approach that has come to be known as ‘rewilding’(6)

Knepp is now a leading light in the conservation movement, an experiment that has produced astonishing wildlife successes in a relatively short space of time & offers solutions for some of our most pressing problems – like soil restoration, flood mitigation, water & air purification, pollinating insects & carbon sequestration. (6)

You don’t need 3,500 acres to be part of the rewilding movement, allowing natural grasses, flowers, shrubs & trees to establish themselves in a natural way, can encourage a wealth of wildlife, whilst also improving soil composition & promoting cleaner air in your own back garden.

Window box

If you do not have a garden, how about installing a window box?

Planting even a few plants, maybe some herbs or small vegetables not only connects you to something living which you have to take care of, but also can give you access to a small amount of fresh produce. Home grown, even if it is one tomato plant, is hugely satisfying & even the smallest amount of plants can support local biodiversity to thrive.

Community gardening

One of the Covid19 legacies which has continued to bring communities together, is community gardening.

Throughout the lockdowns & uncertainties at the height of the pandemic, community gardens became a haven for local people, kept them connected to their neighbours & enabled them to feel the benefits of gardening.

During the height of pandemic there were many stories about communities taking control of areas of otherwise abandoned scrubland & transforming them into wildlife havens & in doing so creating something wonderful for the community to share. By doing this these community projects have not only given the human’s a space which benefit’s their mental & physical wellbeing, but they have also helped support pollinators & boosted biodiversity in their areas.

Walking in Nature

If your lifestyle does not allow access to any of the above ideas, then you could find a way to get outdoors by accessing a local green space or park, a woodland or if possible, a local forest.

As shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” proves, being immersed in nature has great benefits for your physical & mental wellbeing, as well as reducing stress.

During the lockdown in the UK in 2020, a survey showed 85% of adults reported that being in nature made them happy & those who visited a natural space in the previous 7 days reported being happier than those that hadn’t. (5)

Written & cited by Katy-Jane for & on behalf of Dolphin N2.  

Note: Dolphin N2 are not medical professionals. If you are concerned about your mental health, please do contact your GP or medical professional.