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Connecting with nature is essential to good mental health

After a challenging year, it’s more important than ever we recognise the important role nature plays in our lives.

Photo by Dimitry Anikin on Unsplash

The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is ‘nature’. After a challenging year that has had huge impacts on many people’s mental health, two of our mental health workers have reflected on why nature is so important to mental health and how we can save space for nature in our busy lives.

Connecting to nature’s miracles can bring tremendous benefits

By Mark Peters

Connection to nature is fundamental to good mental health.

However, our busy lives keep us distracted from this in lots of different ways: the ever-pinging notifications on our phones demanding our attention to a screen, the concrete, tarmac and brick environments many of us live in, the tight schedules filled with work and home-life leaving little space to stop and pause.

What would happen if we were to stop and pause, just for a moment, and engage our senses? We’d feel the solid earth beneath our feet, an ever-present, always-reliable support to stand and face the day’s difficulties. We might hear the rustle of the newly-sprouted leaves that sway in the breeze heralding summer’s arrival. We’d feel the touch of the sun’s May warmth on our skin, gentle and comforting. In our darkest moments, when perhaps depression has us in its grasp, or during the overwhelming agitation of a bout of anxiety, nature remains all around us: a reliable, undemanding companion.

Spending time immersing ourselves in the natural world brings tremendous benefits. Movement, fresh air and sunlight do wonders for our physical body, improving our stamina and immune systems, as well as promoting improved sleep. Exercise releases endorphins and serotonin, the chemicals produced by our bodies that improve our mood. Time spent in nature can boost our emotions, help us to feel more motivated, and give our self-esteem a lift.

A few years ago I worked with a man who experienced depression and anxiety. His cramped, noisy home was a place he often felt unsafe and alone. It was also where he spent almost all of his time. We explored small changes he could make to help him improve his mood day-to-day. Spending time outside was one of the possibilities we identified. For the next week, he spent time each day exploring the local park, finding different paths and places to sit, and even discovering the beauty of the local river. He reported a marked improvement in his mood, his levels of motivation and his self-esteem directly as a result of his explorations of the natural spaces around him. He made huge progress with his mental health issues.

Carl Jung the psychologist said: “I want to be freed neither from human beings, nor from myself, nor from nature, for all these appear to me the greatest of miracles.” I think Carl Jung was right: we’re surrounded by nature’s miracles. This Mental Health Awareness Week, it’s important to reflect on the tremendous benefits reconnecting to those miracles can bring.

Using nature to connect with others

By Laura Scott

In March last year when our lives turned upside down it became really obvious that we all needed to find ways to look after our mental health while adapting to these new circumstances. ‘Daily walks’ became something many people had in common that they found kept them mentally well.

During Summer last year With You staff joined together to participate in “Walk With You” where individuals and groups took up walking as a fundraising activity. Besides raising much needed money for drug, alcohol and mental health support, many people were surprised by what a powerful mental wellbeing activity it ended up being.

With You staff participating in ‘Walk With You’.

Now restrictions are easing it’s a good time to think about how we can keep this momentum going. What does saving a space for nature in our lives look like in reality?

Using nature to connect with our community is a promising place to start. Many communities already have groups and programmes designed to bring people together. These increasingly popular programmes include litter picks, communal space gardening, building animal habitats and walking/running groups.

Being around nature has been shown to reduce anxiety, improve mood and enhance immune system function. Combining nature with community activities also allows us to connect with others. Meeting new people with shared interests can help with isolation and loneliness. They can help us feel like we’re part of something bigger than ourselves by giving us a sense of purpose in our community.

Sadly, many people have physical or mental health issues that form barriers to connecting with nature or engaging with their community. If anxiety stands in the way of accessing nature think about enlisting a trusted friend to help you slowly get out for walks. They could initially sit with you on your doorstep or at the end of your path. You could then increase this to a small walk around the block.

Another suggestion is to bring nature inside your home. You can do this by using plant boxes, herb growing trays, nature themed crafting or even creating a comfortable space where you can sit inside and look outside.

Using our senses to connect lets us shift our focus of attention to the outside world and give us a break from negative thoughts we often experience with anxiety and low mood.

These are tough times for everyone. With You services are open and we’re here to work alongside you during this difficult time. Visit our website for information and advice, to chat to a trained advisor or to find your local service.

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With You

With You

We are one of the UK’s leading mental health, drug and alcohol charities. We provide free, confidential support with drugs, alcohol and mental health.