Mental health awareness week

Mental Health Awareness Week. Nature – celebrating and understanding its relevance to our wellbeing

This year’s Mental Health Awareness week has the focus on nature – and the way our relationship with nature can provide a lever on our sense of wellbeing. We all have a common-sense instinct that there is truth to this. In this article, I’m going to unpack a little bit more of the why and how we can use this link to have greater traction not only on our state wellbeing (ie the temporary feelings of goodness, rightness, connection) but also in our trait wellbeing – something that really raises the game in our more enduring and persistent outlook.

What has YOUR relationship with nature been during the pandemic? For many of us, as the scope to shop, travel, eat out, experience live music or theatre has dropped away, we have embarked on a life of greater simplicity – and walking or cycling in parks, near rivers or ponds, in woods, or in the countryside has come into sharper focus.

I know that in the transition of returning to work, there are many who feel anxious, and are mourning the chance that working from home had to reset their dial and be out and about with the dog, with their kids, or in their own company, the wind in their hair, and their horizons literally opening up and out away from the laptop.

Having lived, loved, and pounded the streets of central London for more than 20 years, my family and I have enjoyed the beauty of the Thames in all its incarnations from sunrise to sunset. Indeed I remember vividly one particular moment, at first light, the morning after giving birth to our daughter.

I was sitting up in bed, gazing down at this little mis-shapen ball of fluff in a pink turkey suit and looking out of the window of the maternity ward in St Thomas’s hospital and having a panoramic view of the Thames and the Houses of Parliament at sunrise. I had never seen the river so clear and flat – it was as though time had stopped still in a moment of the rosy golden tranquility of dawn. And I remember feeling the most intense – almost spiritual -feeling of gratitude and connection to the universe.

Now before you reach for the sick-bucket…you need to know that I then went on to pick up my work blackberry and catch up on emails while she slept…What can I say…it takes 9 months to make space for a baby in your life…and it was in that moment that looking back, I realise how still attached to my work persona I was despite the momentous event of bringing new life to the world – it took some time to adjust more fully to being able to be more present to motherhood.

So why should we love nature?

Our brains have 3 primary motivational systems: avoiding harm, approaching reward, and connection. We tend to think about connectedness as being inter-relational. But our connectedness to a wider whole – a connectedness to our habitat is something wired in from our hunter-gatherer days on the savannah. We’ve only been living in cities for the last 8000 years…which is relatively new in terms of the shaping of our neurobiology. Right now there are 7 billion of us pushing up against the limits of our world’s bounty. There’s a reason why the call of environmental causes is so pressing and so strong right now. There’s nothing like a pandemic to make us realise our global inter-connectedness. To survive and flourish, it seems there is an evolutionary drive calling us to love the world…

When we fall back in love with the world there is a deeper care and appreciation for it…My new life in a more rural place has certainly put me closer to nature and far more sensitive to the need to care for it. I’m more scrupulous about sorting the recycling. I care more deeply about litter and waste. When I see these things, they are far more of an affront to my senses and sensibility – and I feel far more of a call to action than previously.

One of the biggest existential questions of our age is why, oh why do people bag and knot their dog’s poo only to throw it to the side of a footpath or leave it dangling in a tree…?

Our ancestors left very little trace on the world – they didn’t have the same capacity to harm it or understand their effects on it. Now we are greater in numbers, greater in our capacity to impact on the planet, and greater in our understanding…and so the imperative to love the world and be and feel more connected to it is perhaps coming to the fore in its rightness – not just as a ‘nice to have’ but as a survival need.

More recently, those of us who see ourselves as being in harmony with nature have coped better with the challenges of the pandemic…hiking, forest bathing, Japanese and US researchers from the University of Connecticut contrast the mindset of those who feel that interconnection with those who have a more distant and ego-centric world view of being ‘masters over nature’.

The sense of connectedness to nature was found to have a protective factor against the stresses of the pandemic.

And maybe it is also that sense of something in nature which is both timeless and enduring – the cycle of life through the seasons – as well as something that is precious in its transience (the red-leaves, the blossom) – that takes us out of rumination and preoccupation with the details that so often hijack our thinking…

As a japan-o-phile, I have always noticed the cultural reverence for nature that links the essence of the practicalities of the challenge of living and thriving on mountainous volcanic islands with very limited space. The reverence for the Hanami – the celebration of the cherry blossom as it sweeps through the nation in March / April, and the ‘red leaves’ in October. To the extent that not only is there a weather forecast around these times, but also a ‘blossom forecast’…

There is something deeply pleasing to me about the aesthetic sensibilities that harness both the urban and ultra-modern with the need for a connection with nature in the landscape and architecture…from borrowed scenery, the deliberate framing of natural vistas no matter how small, to the ‘engawa’ – the outer edge of the home – like a balcony that runs the whole length of the side of the house…which connects with the garden… no matter how small…to the simplicity of the smallest vase and a simple twig in leaf, blossom on the table.

We can learn a great deal from the way in which Japanese culture is intentional about going out and seeking nature in its changes, and how it brings nature in to the home. It’s not for nothing that the Japanese are famed for longevity and life satisfaction – and why it is a place of great interest to psychologists seeking to unlock the key to trait wellbeing.

Loving, appreciating, protecting nature.

Cherishing, noticing at close quarters, taking the chance to immerse ourselves in the direct experience of the beauty of nature, seeing trees and flowers bud and bloom, appreciating shade, breathing the air, and hearing birdsong in stereo. All these aspects ground us in our senses. They take us out of our heads and into our bodies. When we are able to tune into this, we make headspace to be present. To shift our focus from the time-travelling tape-recorder of our internal narrative which fast-forwards to future what if’s and rewinds to should-have’s.

Sitting at our desks, our computers, adult workers, and scholars and pupils alike…we only have a certain amount of fuel to power our ability for focused thinking and problem solving. The glucose available to the exam candidate or worker lasts 90 minutes. Towards the end of that span, the ability to connect, create, integrate, adapt, use higher order thinking skills drops off the cliff.

We can power up again by looking up and away – to change our vista – look at the sky, look at the sun on the trees, see the branches move in the breeze. And that reflective appreciation of nature in that micro-exercise will be enough to top up and sustain the resource and the stamina to continue (useful for exams!).

Being able to experience more attuned and sustained appreciative contact with our global nest gives us a sense of love – an altruistic caring for the planet we are in. It gives us a sense of purpose, meaning, a practical and ethical framework for everyday living. You naturally cherish what you love. You keep safe what you love, and you want to help it flourish in the now and in the future. That sense of presence, the imperative to do no – or less harm – for a greater good – is deeply altruistic – and altruism pays us back in kind with a more lasting and meaningful happiness.

The practice:

  1. Aim to do one practical activity every day that brings you in touch with nature in some way. For a minute, ten minutes, an hour, a day, whatever it is you are able to do with your time regularly in the week… Think of ways you can tune in to an appreciative sensory experience of nature. Then slow down and dial up the sensory aspect of the experience. Truly cherish it. Some ideas…
    o It might be sitting down on grass to eat a quick and quiet sandwich, take in the smells, the texture.
    o Looking out of the window, focus on a tree – notice the light on the leaves, the dappling of the shade, the architecture, the shape and dimensions, the solidity, the movement of the breeze through the tree, however gentle, however rhythmic, notice the dynamics…
    o Even if it’s just a short diversion in your walk home or your trip to the shop to pass an interesting tree in its cycle of blossoming…or stop to notice the ducks…or see the flow of water under the bridge you cross…
    o As we walk by the river Wye, we often like to just stop and see. It’s deeply absorbing and interesting to watch the cows in the field half way between Hereford and Breinton. Seeing the calves and adding a narrative to their lowing. Five minutes to stand and stare is often rewarded by a fish jumping or the flash of a kingfisher, or noticing the spectacular blue of a Jay…
  2. Protect something from harm…think of David Attenborough! Save and repurpose something you might otherwise throw away. Use leftover food more creatively…pick up litter, clear the beach by the river from beer cans and broken glass…Join a beach-clean. More broadly, take action…to protect the world – there are so many paths to do this in terms of activism and political campaigning. And there are so many ways to contribute to the dialogue for adults, teens and young children alike. Dial up that sense of ethical connection to what we and our kids want for the earth, our environment, and the community around us…and connect to other like-minded people, as well as to the altruistic purpose we feel in our core. Make it a commitment, or in holiday times when we have more to give, a point of action. That sense of agency adds hugely to our feelings of capability, satisfaction, and contribution.
  3. Pick one thing and help it grow and thrive – a plant, a business, a community project. IN the home, this could be adding a special plant(s) to the life of the family, and learning how to be responsible for its care.

Leisure – William Henry Davies       
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare

Other ways to connect with nature:
• Continue to meet up outdoors. Be a ninja picnicker with friends. Continue to walk together…
• Start a gardening project – from simply growing and maintaining herbs that you can use for cooking, to building up to a veg patch…or planning for blossoms.
• Take photos…create an album of your noticing of nature…and look at how it affects your mood when you look through those pictures…Have the seasons in the palm of your hand…I hope you’ve enjoyed some of my album here…
• Exercise outdoors when you can…
• Think of all the ways you changed your interactions with nature during the lockdown. AS we return more fully to office spaces and old routines – which of these interactions had the best impact…what do you want to retain…? How can you keep up that thread?
• Be strategic about your contact with the outdoors (weather permitting) – when could you use a boost the most…when does your body and brain take a bit of a dip during the day working from home or sitting at the desk or being in class? Think about how you can create a mental moat around key beginnings and endings…and use contact with handy outside spaces if you can, where possible…
• Think of ways you can celebrate nature in the home…a cactus garden? Houseplants? Flowers…pictures on the fridge door…competitions for best image of the week / month…and display…

We’re in the pandemic…coming out of lockdown…we’re not out of the woods yet…and even if we were… there’s a heavy load in our mental back-packs from the strain of the last year.Often things hit us not when it’s at the worst…but when we are in recovery…so being observant and aware of our mindset, our sense of state wellbeing and our trait wellbeing is key…In my coaching, so many families are feeling higher levels of stress and frustration at home. And the same is true in the workplace in the work I do with adults…This is all about our relationships with ourselves, within our environment, our community, and the world. How do we relate to it? How do we want to relate to it? And how do we want the next generation to relate to it? Is it going to be a distant relation we occasionally call on, or a friend? A child? A beloved place of belonging? With love and gratitude in this special Mental Health Awareness week… Emma. 

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