Wild Therapy is all the rage for us urban girls with "issues". I have an eco-therapist called Gemma. We meet in remote countryside spots and go for walks while I mostly whinge about my mother with the occasional “Oooh, cute robin!” or “Crikey, what’s that smell?” Once Gemma invited me to hug a tree, which I was all up for doing, until I got up close and worried about insects leaping down my top...
Another time she sent me off to collect things – sticks and flowers and conkers and then come back and make them into a mandala. That was quite cute, I felt like a child rushing off to explore in the woods. We talked about what I picked up and what it made me think about: and before I knew it I was deep in my subconscious. Because that is what wild places do: help reconnect you with yourself and your own wild nature. We neglect them or forget their value at our peril.
Spas are really clued up to the stress-busting effects of nature. My au naturel highlights this year include a private hot-tub on the wild river banks at Galgorm in Northern Ireland, a walk around the gorgeously romantic gardens and woodland at Champney’s HenlowGrange (I saw a wild deer in a forest glade: a magical moment), dozing on the outdoor waterbeds in Aqua Sana Elveden listening to the rain in the trees, and getting warmly rustic in Utopia’s shepherd’s hut sauna.
Spas around the world are slightly ahead of us when it comes to embracing nature as part of the spa experience. In Thailand, the spa IS the outdoors – the flowing, bubbling stream that feels like a powerful Jacuzzi doesn’t require any plumbing, although it does require you hold onto the rocks unless you want to be swept away to Burma. In Switzerland and Austria, mindful walking is part of the programme. If you are on a digital detox, you will often be encouraged to experience nature with your senses instead of through the lens of your smart phone. In a digital world, the effect is quite astonishing, like diving into a freshwater lake.
The idea of nature as therapy isn’t new. Forest bathing or ‘shirin-yoku’ was developed as the cornerstone of preventative health care in Japanese medicine in the 1980s. In 2007, researchers at the University of Essex found that of a group of people suffering from depression, 90 per cent felt a higher level of self-esteem after a walk through a country park, and almost three-quarters felt less depressed. In a study conducted by Mind, a mental health charity, a nature walk reduced the symptoms of depression in 71 per cent of participants, compared to 45 per cent of those who took a walk through a shopping centre.
I don’t know about you, but when I’ve had a bad day and decide to go for a walk instead of reaching for the wine, for the first ten minutes or so, my mind is so busy whirring about I can’t see the wood for the trees. But after a while, I slow down and start to notice my surroundings. The beat of my feet slows my heart. My mind clears, the stress vanishes, and I finally arrive in what Buddhists and calm people call ‘the moment’. I’ve forgotten my worries because I’m looking at a cloud that looks like a chicken. Or Donald Trump eating a tree. On the way home, more often than not, a brilliant solution to my problem will suddenly present itself.
One study showed that even looking at pictures of trees and nature can reduce stress, so make time to gaze at the gorgeous photographs in our Into the Wild feature.