How often, over the last year, have you felt tense, frightened, angry or down? We’ve all been through a lot over the past fourteen months, but life was pretty stressful even before that, and will continue to be afterwards, too. So what can we do to help soothe our frayed souls?
It’s Mental Health Awareness Week this week, from the 10th – 16th May, 2021, and this year the focus is on reconnecting with nature and the wonderful things the natural world can do for our mental health.
I’ve suffered with chronic anxiety all my life and I can absolutely attest to the meditative, healing powers of the natural world. Building a relationship with nature, in whatever form, can help us to develop empathy and self-compassion, heal frazzled nerves and soothe stress. Seeing as so much of my work is based around the natural world and mental health, it made perfect sense for me to write about it.
Getting Outdoors (Japanese Forest Bathing)
I first heard about this from a friend and thought it sounded utterly weird.
But the more I learned about it, the more I realised it was a thing I loved to do, and I hadn’t even realised I was doing it.
Forest Bathing, a Japanese concept, essentially means being calm and reflective in a forest environment, allowing the sights, sounds and smells of the forest to soothe you. In Japanese, it is known as shinrin yoku, and it is all about connecting your mind and body with your natural, forest surroundings.
There’s a lot of evidence now, from a whole range of sources, that suggest the chemicals produced by trees and plants play a part in helping the human mind to relax. I guess that makes sense. When our immediate environment is green and plentiful, it means the natural world is supplying us with all we need. There’s food, probably water nearby, and materials to make tools and shelter. When these basic needs are met, it helps us to feel safe and provided for.
I mean, I have absolutely no idea if that’s how it actually works, it’s just what makes sense to me.
I’ve found that my soul is soothed and my inner anxiety (I call it my head goblin) is soothed when I’m in a forest, listening to the birds, breathing in the scents, and enjoying the way the sunlight plays through the leaves.
There are some great tips on Forest Bathing here, on the Forestry England website.
But What If There Aren’t Spaces Near Me?
Well, this is a valid concern. So many of us live in built up areas, or in high-rises, where our immediate environment is cold and grey and concrete. In a way, even if you love your city and everything in it, it’s no wonder city dwellers suffer so much more with poor mental health.
The colours of nature are bound to help us feel safe and calm, but monotonous greyness is going to make us feel a little bit miserable.
Some of us also struggle to get out to green spaces, whether because of time constraints or other health conditions we have to manage.
This can make it really hard to get our daily dose of the natural world.
I’m very lucky that living room window looks out onto a lovely green space, but I don’t have a garden, and that was really hard during lockdown. So I improvised. I made myself a little wildlife station on our miniscule Juliet balcony, with a couple of bird feeders and some window planters.. Tending this garden and feeding the birds gives me immense pleasure, and it’s so wonderful to see families of birds and swathes of insects visiting the haven I’ve made for them.
Indoor plants can really help, too. A little bit of green can make us feel a lot calmer, and it’ll probably improve the air you’re breathing.
There are some suggestions for how to commune with nature on the Mental Health Awareness website, here.
Making Friends with Wildlife
I mentioned this a little bit in the section above, but providing for nature can also bring us a lot of joy and help to manage our stresses and anxieties.
I love watching the birds visit our wildlife haven. They’re such characters and their daily squabbles, their relationships, the way they solve problems, is fascinating. When you’re sitting super-still so that you don’t scare away the beautiful woodpecker who’s just landed on your balcony railing, it’s very hard to stay worried about your tax return or that deadline you’ve got looming.
Sometimes, just knowing that you are providing for the wildlife around you, and that wildlife is responding, is a wonderful feeling.
Empathy for wildlife is more important than ever, both for the wildlife and for us, so I would highly recommend organising a bird feeder, or planting some pollinator-friendly flowers in a window planter. Just knowing your local wildlife is thriving because of effort and time you’ve put in to support it can do wonders for your mood. It also helps you manage a daily routine, knowing you’ve got to get up to refill the bird table or water the plants, and can help soothe an anxious heart.
I’ve always found the natural world calming, and have loved building time into my routine for my wildlife garden. Honestly, I’ve also found I’ve become a lot more philosophical about things that used to make me feel stressed. I’m not pretending my anxiety is cured, it certainly isn’t, but spending more time reconnecting with the natural world has definitely helped me to manage it.
If you want some more information about ideas for reconnecting with nature, and how this can help your mental health, check out the Mental Health Awareness website here.
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