Mental Health Awareness Week: The restorative power of nature
Has spending time outdoors helped you feel better during the pandemic? Have you found yourself noticing nature more? Lots of us have, which is why the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (10th-16th May 2021) is nature, and how connecting with it benefits our emotional wellbeing. We’re all being encouraged to use the week to find new ways to experience, share and talk about nature.
Research from the Mental Health Foundation shows that going for walks outside was one of our top coping strategies during the months of lockdown, with 45% of us reporting that being in green spaces had been vital for our mental health. Websites which featured wildlife webcams saw hits increase by over 2,000%.
Interacting with nature involves a lot of things that we know have the power to reduce anxiety and improve our mood. Taking exercise boosts our physical health and energy, for instance, while even spending a small amount of time outside has been shown to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Being active outdoors can clear the mind, and make us feel more relaxed. It also helps to get our bodies in tune with natural cycles and rhythms, which can improve our sleep as well as making us feel more connected with the world around us.
The beauty of what we see and hear in the natural world has the ability to lift our spirits, and make us feel more creative, inspired and positive, while the change of scenery can provide a fresh perspective on a problem. If we feel ‘stuck’ in our heads doing something outside – such as gardening – can help shift our focus. Gardening also bring a real sense of achievement.
To experience the full benefits nature can bring, however, we need to actively engage with it. This means being fully present, and making a conscious effort to be mindful. Someone who goes for a walk during their lunch break and spends the time worrying about what they need to do in the afternoon is unlikely to feel much better afterwards!
A good way to ground yourself in the moment and really interact with nature is to use all of your senses to notice the things around you. What can you smell? Can you hear birdsong? Stop and really listen to it. What can you see? Has anything grown or sprouted since you were last here? What does the sun – or rain! – feel like on your face?
We asked some of our family and friends to tell us how nature has helped their mental health – especially during the pandemic. Their stories might give you some ideas for how you can connect with nature this week.
“I’m an advocate of Forest Bathing, a Japanese relaxation practice. The simple method of being calm and quiet amongst the trees, observing nature around you whilst breathing deeply can help you de-stress and boost health and wellbeing”
“When the sun is shining and I have a few minutes to bask in it I feel as if it’s recharging my batteries. I imagine it’s literally filling me with energy, motivation and resilience, from the bottom of my feet all the way up to my head.”
“Walking helps me still my mind from the chaos of everyday life. Even on the coldest winter days we ventured out, drawn to nature by the sounds of forest, the scent of trees and fresh air. This helped us all with resetting our moods and being more grateful.”
“I started mushroom picking, and the experience was revitalising – it gave me the opportunity to reconnect with my senses after so long indoors. It brought a state of mindfulness; I was in the present and really needed to focus, to be aware of my surroundings, scouting for little toadstools that seemed to pop out from the mossy overgrowth or a pile of autumn leaves.”
“I was determined to walk each day. I loved seeing the daffodils and tulips and the buds on the trees, then other plants as the year went on. It gave me a sense of hope that, although the situation was really bad, some things remained the same.”
“I took the opportunity to slow down and get to know my local area better. I was able to appreciate the beauty of nature, watching the birds, butterflies and bees going about their business, and the flowers coming to life, as well as enjoying the sunshine and fresh air. This undoubtedly gave me a sense of calm and wellbeing in spite of the pandemic.”
You can find out more about Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 here.