Nature deficit disorder

By Lauren Edwards

A study by UK communications regulator Ofcom determined that, in the UK, we spend an average of eight hours a day on our devices, which means we are staring at our screens for longer than we are actually sleeping at night.

In Japan, a 60-hour working week is considered ‘normal’ with 23 percent of companies stating that their employees work more than 80 hours of overtime each month. It is estimated that eleven million people take the subway into Tokyo each day. White gloved ‘pushers’ cram passengers into overcrowded carriages, with commuters unable to sit down, read or even place both feet on the ground. It is not uncommon to see office workers sleeping on the streets at night or choosing to stay in a capsule hotel where they are packed into a pod, like a sardine, with only enough room to lie down and watch television. Some capsule hotels in Tokyo have as many as seven hundred pods.  

Photo by Pawel Jaszczuk – VICE

As early as the 1980s, the word ‘technostress’ was coined to describe unhealthy behaviour around technology. Symptoms include anxiety, headaches, insomnia, and mental fatigue. In 1982, the Japanese government introduced the national health programme of Shinrin-Yoku, also known as forest bathing, to combat the stress that their population were experiencing.

Forest bathing is not about finding a stream to have a wash in, but simply a way of connecting with nature within a forest setting. To achieve this, you will firstly need to leave your phone at home so that you can embrace all your senses without distraction. Choose a forest where you can walk aimlessly and slowly, savouring the sounds, smells and sights of nature and allowing the forest to envelop you. So maybe travel further afield and not your local park where it may be difficult to meditate amongst the dog walkers and kids playing football.  

Engage your five senses:

  1. Sound – Listen to the birds singing, the breeze rustling in the trees, the crunch of the ground beneath your feet. Try to avoid green spaces next to roads or busy areas. There is nothing Zen about ice-cream vans or police sirens!
  2. Sight – Look at the different colours of the trees, the sunlight filtering through the branches, the range of textures around you. Ignore your phone and resist the urge to take a picture for the ‘gram.
  3. Smell – Inhale the fragrance of the forest, smell the flowers, the pine scent of the trees. Not the easiest part for any hayfever sufferers but try your best.
  4. Taste – Inhale deeply and taste the freshness of the air. Appreciate the lack of exhaust fumes or vape trails.
  5. Touch – Hug a tree. Dip your fingers in a stream. Take your shoes and socks off and feel the grass beneath your feet.

Shinrin-Yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.

Dr Qing Li, Nippon Medical School in Japan

One of the few positive outcomes of our lockdown lives this past year has been the simple pleasure of going for a walk. In the early days of the pandemic, when we were encouraged to stay indoors and only exercise for a short period each day, we took to our local parks and farmers’ fields with newly found vigour. Once quiet country lanes were soon awash with families in newly bought activewear, holding our breath as we passed each person, unsure of how to deal with this unknown virus that was sweeping the nation.

My three teenage children all appear to have their phones surgically attached to their hands on a daily basis. My eldest son is never without his Airpods, and my daughter only seems to communicate with her friends via WhatsApp. It hasn’t helped this past year that we have had to home school and actually encourage our children to spend all day on their screens for lessons and then forbid them from leaving the house which resulted in gaming becoming their only form of socialising.

So, as life returns to some form of normality, perhaps we should all try to sandwich a segment of forest bathing into our lives. There is a wealth of data proving that forest bathing can lower stress, boost the immune system, and improve concentration and memory. We need to re-wild our children, force our teenagers off their screens and back into the great outdoors. Maybe pitch it like a kind of Hunger Games set up, minus the real weapons. Or perhaps bury their iPhone in a wooded area and set them free to forage for their devices.

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