Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Sakura 2020

Sakura (桜) is the Japanese word for cherry trees and their blossoms. But the word means so much more than that. With just one word, the Japanese are talking about the beauty of nature, the renewal of spring, and the ephemeral quality of life.

The cherry tree at our family home is blooming. It has been a silver lining of sheltering in place that I have had the chance to witness its Spring wake up and explosion of petals. Especially this week that contains Earth Day, and especially this year of COVID-19, its beauty draws me in. Reminding me that life is fragile and fleeting. Reminding me that new life is ahead. This intersection of Sakura, Earth Day, and COVID-19 spurs my musings today about Mother Earth and mental health.

1. Bathing in Nature to Improve Mental Health. Shinrin-yoku (森林浴) is another great Japanese term relevant to today’s musings. Shinrin in Japanese means forest, and yoku means bath. Shinrin-yoku or forest bathing refers to the practice of taking in the forest through our senses. Research from Japan has shown that forest environments reduce the stress hormone cortisol and promote healthy blood pressure and heart rate. Gretchen Daily, Stanford Professor and Senior Fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, carries this work further and advocates for green space as a vital public mental health strategy. Daily and colleagues are building an evidence base documenting the mental health benefits of green space, including data demonstrating that simply walking in green space decreases activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression.

2. Consuming Nature to Improve Mental Health. We know diet is important to other aspects of our health, what about our mental health? I have worked with individuals suffering from eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa for decades. For these individuals, the connection between troubles with food and mental health is front and center. But the link between eating and mental health applies to all of us. A pioneer in the field of nutrition and mental health, Columbia University Psychiatrist Drew Ramsey MD makes a compelling case in the book he co-authored with Tyler Graham, The Happiness Diet, that our modern American diet is not only responsible for the skyrocketing rates of obesity, but is also starving us of the nutrients and fats that we need for optimal brain health. When it comes to mental health, we have much to (re) learn about the connection between nutrition and the brain. I agree with Dr. Ramsey, we are what we eat (which is why when it comes to COVID-19, I do not agree with the current US president’s suggestion to ingest disinfections to treat COVID-19).

3. Breathing in Nature to Improve Mental Health. We all have our favorite smells, and aromatherapy products are a testament to the role of the olfactory system on mood. Some of Mother Nature’s most beloved scents are also good for our mental health. Some of the best documented are citrus fruits, like oranges and lemons, that have been shown to boost energy and alertness and reduce stress. Freshly cut grass is another. Australian researchers report that a chemical released by freshly cut grass can cause people to become more relaxed and even feel joy. Lavender has documented calming effects that improve mood and ease sleep. And a particular favorite of mine, rosemary, has been shown to enhance memory of complex events and tasks.

4. Listening to Nature to Improve Mental Health. Formal research data are accumulating in support of common knowledge: The sounds of nature are also good for our mental health. Research from the University of Sussex shows that when we listen to the sounds of nature, our brain activity reflects a more relaxed and outward-directed focus of attention. When we listen to artificial sounds, our brains reflect a more inward-directed focus of attention, similar to what we see in anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Scientists at the University of Surrey report that of all the natural sounds, bird songs take first place as the antidote to stress – facilitating our ability to restore and refocus our attention. Listening to folk musician Sam Lee sing with nightingales leaves no doubt.

5. Growing up in Nature to Improve Mental Health. Parents and teachers alike know the essential benefits of nature on child development. From improving mood, promoting concentration, and reducing attentional problems, being outdoors, and specifically in green space, has huge mental health benefits for kids of all ages. For university students, as little as 10 minutes sitting or walking in green spaces can have a significant positive effect on mental health and well-being. And the effects last. A recent study from Danish researchers at Aarhus University reported that kids who have regular access to greener surroundings have up to 55% less risk of developing various mental disorders later in life.

Sakura. Earth Day. COVID-19. Some years we are lucky and the cherry blossoms seem like they will last forever. But eventually and inevitably, and usually due to a spring storm, the petals are torn from their branches. It is the most bittersweet moment of loss and renewal. I can only hope that in the wake of the devastation of COVID-19, we find a path of renewal that is guided by a commitment to the health of all, including Mother Earth. For as goes the health of our planet, so goes the health of humanity. And in all the ways that Mother Earth sustains our mental health and wellbeing, Mother Earth’s health and wellbeing are also in our hands. 

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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