Whilst there’s nothing like the real thing, and we should all be trying to get at least an hour outdoors a day, it’s hard for many of us to get out there at the moment.
Did you know that just sounds and smells of nature can provide benefits to our mental health and wellbeing, even if we can't get out there to emerse ourselves?
1. Playing Birdsong
Stress relief - As we are instinctively programmed to trust that birdsong means safety, it has been proven that birdsong induces the instant sensation of calm and relaxation. A casual stroll or a light jog in the park surrounded by the harmonic tones of birdsong can leave us feeling refreshed and revitalised, helping to relieve the body of tension and encourage mental positivity and well-being.
Improve focus and awareness - Birdsong can also be used to help stimulate us cognitively, whether to improve concentration in the workplace or personal projects at home. The natural sound of birdsong helps us to remain awake and alert during the hours of sunlight. A study in Liverpool examined the effects of the 'post-meal slump'. The period in which blood sugar levels begin to drop after a big meal causing drowsiness is known to have a profound detrimentl effect on concentration levels. Yet, since being introduced to a soundscape of birdsong, school pupils concentration levels dramatically increased.
Natural birdsong is so effective as it is stochastic - meaning there is no repeating rhythm and is impossible to get a particular tune or pattern to focus on. It doesn't get stuck in your head or annoy you but it doesn't lull you to sleep and bore you either.
Therapeutic - Recently introduced to busy airport terminals, commuter trains and hospitals, the general calming sound of birdsong is believed to generate a therapeutic atmosphere. Recordings of birds singing are just as effective as hearing birdsong naturally out in the open.
I'm not sure there is any other sound that can do what birdsong does. It should be part of the soundtrack to everyone's day. Here are a few links to some of the many resources online:-
In our everyday lives, we're constantly bombarded with sensory stimuli, whether from our devices, busy homes and offices, or hectic streets. Our brains need downtime, but they rarely get enough of it.
Being around water gives our brains and our senses a rest from overstimulation.
2. Water Sounds
Water sounds have long been used in meditation to create a soothing atmosphere for our minds. These sounds often endure a meditative state, without the need for mediation. Science suggests that the rhythm of ocean waves and tides coming in and out can change your mood immediately, positively affecting the rhythm of the neuronal “waves” in our brain, encouraging a more peaceful pace of thought (bringing tranquillity and relaxation).
The trickle of water, a babbling brook, small stream or an artificial fountain changes blood flow in the brain associated with relaxation. These occur in the same part of the brain associated with compassion and connection. Dentists in Malaysia have played sounds of water fountains to relax young people before dental care. Maybe from time immemorial, as part of our human DNA we’ve associated these sorts of sounds with life and clean water? It may also be associated with the fact we spend our first 9 months under water, in fluids listening to sounds through water in the womb?
Scientists also refer to the sounds of water as “white noise,” in which we can hear any number of things and we are able to let go of our thoughts and let the noise wash over us. In listening to these sounds we learn how to be present in the moment. Light rain on glass is a great example of this.
Listen to the sounds of water before bed or to relax during the day
Find a water-sounds playlist online, or buy a CD with the natural sounds of water. (This could be the ocean, gentle waterfall, rainforest, etc.) Playing these sounds before bed will help you relax and give you a better sleep.
An aquarium, tiny fountain or other water feature in your home can also create negative ions, boosting your mental energy.
3. Smells of Nature
Most people who walk into a room that smells of jasmine, vanilla or lavender, are likely to improve their mood.
Studies show that certain smells can influence parts of the brain that are responsible for productivity. School teachers use fragrance diffusers in the classroom, occasionally associated with different subjects, to stimulate brain activity and calm some children down to a more relaxed state to improve concentration and performance.
The same can be seen in the workplace. Placing an aroma diffuser in the office can improve employees’ mood and productivity, and contribute to an all-around happier work environment.
To understand the connection between smell and emotion, we first need to mention an interesting and crucial region in our brain, called the hippocampus. The hippocampus, part of a network called the limbic system and one of the most studied parts of the brain, is associated with the processes of feelings and reacting. The hippocampus also stores two types of memory: declarative and spatial. The former is related to facts and events and the latter to pathways and routes.
The hippocampus is also where short-term memories turn into long-term memories. Since smell processing is also closely related to the hippocampus, scents and emotions are tightly intertwined. Our sense of smell is constantly taking us somewhere. As we journey in and out of memories and along with them, it invokes a range of emotions that tie to our present situation in either clear or very subtle ways.
Here are a few natural smells and their known effects:-
Lavender can help you sleep
As a go-to scent for relaxation, lavender can help calm the mind and body almost instantly. But perhaps its most useful benefit is its ability to help treat insomnia in students. In a study of college students, research found that the fragrance effectively eased sleep problems and depression in the participants. Next time you're having trouble getting your shuteye, try turning to the soothing scent for a little help.
Cinnamon can sharpen your mind
This sweet-smelling spice can also boost your brain power. Researchers from Wheeling Jesuit University studied participants and found that those who took a whiff of cinnamon improved in cognitive functions like visual-motor response, working memory and attention span.
Pine can alleviate stress
There's more than one reason why pine trees bring us happiness at Christmas. A pine scent could be decreasing our anxiety, according to research. In one Japanese study, participants who went on a walk through pine forests reported significantly lower depression and stress levels. The research also discovered that anxious subjects had a greater feeling of relaxation after indulging in the scent.
Fresh-cut grass can make you more joyful
You may think mowing the lawn is an annoying, menial task, but the fresh scent the chore yields may be making you happier. Scent researchers found that a chemical released by a newly-mowed lawn can make people feel joyful and relaxed. The aroma may also prevent mental decline as you grow older. The smell apparently is so powerful that neuroscientists came up with a perfume and air fragrance that matches it so the lawnless can also reap the benefits of the feel-good scent -- no lawn mower required.
Citrus can help you feel more energized
If you're looking for a little pick-me-up, you may want to forget the cup of coffee and opt for citrus instead. Scents like lemon and orange are not only well-known for their Vitamin C properties, but simply sniffing the fruit can help boost energy and alertness. Talk about a real superfruit!
Vanilla can elevate your mood
Vanilla may often be used as a synonym for "bland," but this scent is anything but when it comes to our happiness levels. In a study published in the Proceedings of ISOT/JASTS 2004, researchers found that taking a whiff of vanilla bean elevated participants' feelings of joy and relaxation. The results were measured through mood mapping, which included emotions ranging from happiness and stimulation to apathy and irritation.
Peppermint may boost concentration
In addition to giving you sweet breath, peppermint may also do your brain a favor. A small study out of Wheeling Jesuit University found that smelling peppermint could be linked to greater cognitive stamina, motivation and overall performance. Known for invigorating the mind, it's even been used as an aid for students when taking tests. There is also a small bit of research to suggest that the menthol scent in peppermint even tricks the brain into thinking that it alleviates stuffy nasal passages -- just the thing you need when you're feeling a little under the weather.
Jasmine may ease depression
This floral scent also is serious mood enhancer. A 2010 study found that not only does the smell of jasmine create a sense of alertness, it can also serve as a way to help with depressive thoughts. Researchers found that the stimulating effect of jasmine oil can aid in the relief of depression and can lead to an uplifted mood. Pretty powerful for a tiny flower.
Apples may mitigate a migraine
You know what they say, "an apple a day keeps the doctor away" -- and that may be more true when it comes to headaches. Research has suggested that the smell of the crisp fruit may actually help ease a migraine. One 2008 study showed that those who found the scent appealing had a noticeable reduction in headache symptoms as well as shortened migraine episodes. Previous studies on a green apple's odor have also found the scent may help control feelings of anxiety during stressful moments.