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Nature is beneficial to us in many ways; it helps us breathe by producing oxygen, it helps tackle global warming by consuming CO2, it provides foods for us, and so much more.
But, while nature has plenty of physical benefits for us, many don’t realise how it can help our mental health too.
The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, which began on Monday, May 10, is nature for that very reason – in the hopes of helping people to realise how useful nature can be in looking after our mental wellbeing.
Recent research conducted by the Mental Health Foundation showed almost half of the 4,274 UK adults surveyed found being close to nature helped them handle stress, while 70% said being near nature improved their mood.
As well as this, four in 10 adults said being near nature made them feel less anxious.
Discussing the benefits of nature, Mark Rowland, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said, ‘Nature can be a powerful ally in protecting our mental health, preventing distress and ensuring good mental wellbeing. While nature won’t solve all our problems – prioritising time in nature can really help support good mental health.’
He continued: ‘However, the most important thing is the quality of the experience, and feeling like we connect with nature by trying to notice its beauty and absorb its sights, sounds and scents.’
Danny told UNILAD:
There is (at long last!) some scientific evidence beginning to confirm the benefits that being in nature can have upon our minds and general well-being. The benefits are vast; positive changes in behaviour, our mood, reducing levels of stress and anxiety.
Furthermore, surrounding yourself in nature can also help to strengthen our attention span and ability to focus, given that we are forced to stop and admire specific details that nature presents to us – from intricate designs of plants to the way that wildlife seems to work in its own fascinating way.
Danny went on to add that nature being a tool for mental health should be highlighted just as much as exercise. He explained, ‘While exercise is really good from a physiology perspective; elevating the heart rate and releasing lots of beneficial hormones and chemicals within the body, experiencing nature is in contrast a more gentle and calmer approach to improving mental health. It will help to calm the mind, quieten the internal noise and allow for some clarity of thought and focus on the present.’
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One person who found nature has really helped their mental health in the past few months is Ali Smith, so much so she moved out of London to be in a more rural area. Ali even underwent a dramatic career change from an accountant to a professional dog walker mid-pandemic.
Discussing her mental health during the past year, Ali told UNILAD, ‘I was worried about the pandemic and my mental health, especially as the lockdowns meant I couldn’t work or be out in nature as much as I might have liked. It felt like my world had become constricted. Before the pandemic I felt like I had all the local parks at my disposal and that I was able to be where I wanted to be, but the lockdown threatened that.’
As a way of coping while still living in London, Ali took her German Shepherd out twice a day on nearby country routes – something she credits for avoiding a lapse in her mental health.
Ali explained why she turned to nature during such a difficult year:
I find nature is more where I’m meant to be. I feel happier surrounded by trees (even if my hay fever hates it sometimes!), and it makes me feel more centred. I know that when I’m out there, COVID isn’t an issue I need to worry about, as I don’t really need to be in close contact with anyone at any time.
Nature helps me get perspective and, not to mention, escape the news! Whack on a podcast, pop one headphone in, and go see the bluebells sprout amongst the forest floor.
Since moving out of London to Maryland, US, Ali has also created her own vegetable garden – another thing she says has helped her manage her mental health recently. Ali says a ‘large component’ of her decision to leave the city was to be closer to nature.
She explained, ‘I feel I was fighting my own nature by trying to make London work for me. Everything about it, the coldness and the corporate-ness of it just went against the grain for me and it led me down a really dark path that I don’t ever want to visit again. I felt so lost there, like my purpose wasn’t being met, and I was doing everything that I had been set up for. I didn’t realise how much I needed that green space that London rarely offers.’
Ali describes herself as now ‘living in the middle of nowhere’ in the US and is surrounded by deer and vineyards.
Following her move, Ali says she feels ‘mentally stable’ since ‘reuniting with nature’. Being outdoors and exercising more as part of her job has also helped her, Ali added.
Gemma Birbeck has also used nature to her advantage during the pandemic to help her mental health. Gemma, Director at Loaded PR, said she ‘didn’t feel [her]self’ during the pandemic and, due to her job, she had to keep up-to-date with the ongoing, negative news, which ultimately led to her suffering with low mood.
Gemma was also under the additional pressure of, like many parents throughout lockdown, working from home while home-schooling her son.
Talking about why she turned to nature, Gemma explained to UNILAD, ‘With only one hour a day of exercise and essential trips to the shop permitted, I found myself craving the outdoors. We did renovate our garden so that we could spend more time outside, but it wasn’t the same after a while. Over time, I began to feel like I was cooped up, congested and lacking essential vitamins, and had this overwhelming desire to be surrounded by greenery and nature.’
‘I’d find a new place to walk locally, but it needed to have trees or water for reasons I can’t explain. I guess it gave me a sense of escapism as all we’d known for months is our local village full of shops and houses,’ Gemma continued.
As well as escaping to the outdoors more often, Gemma started moving nature inside her home too, by buying house plants and painting her bedroom walls different shades of greens, browns and oranges, which she says made an ‘immense’ difference.
I think the good thing about nature is it helps you reconnect, and if you find the right place to enjoy then it can really help you refocus and feel revitalised. I’ve always been one for things such as holistic therapies and recently turned vegan, so it made sense to me that nature could also be healing.
In late 2020, when things had reopened and we were allowed to travel, we made the decision to try wild camping for the first time. We headed to a specialist campsite which had plots within the forest and it was amazing. Going back to basics and spending the weekend in a forest reenergised all of us and I personally felt my mood had lifted.
In the wake of Mental Health Awareness Week’s theme being nature, and the evident proof that it can help people’s mental wellbeing, Danny advised people to use the outdoors to their advantage. He gave the following advice: ‘Look for open parks, forests, coastal locations or relatively isolated but green locations that you can spend some time walking through. Switch your phone to silent or even better switch it to airplane mode to allow yourself to get fully absorbed in the present. As you walk, use as many of your senses to capture the surroundings, such as the sights and smells that you are experiencing.
‘Be fully present and observant to the wildlife, plants and whatever else you may find on your way. You’ll find yourself so focussed on the present that your mind is able to switch off from your stresses and pressures and allow it to perform a reset, so to speak,’ Danny concluded.
The Mental Health Foundation has also compiled a list of tips of how you can connect with nature, which you can read here.
If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They’re open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58 and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone.
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