One of the things that has been so apparent over the last year is the importance of having access to nature. I know that in the first lockdown my long morning walks in our local woods were lifesaving. I was feeling anxious, a bit scared and increasingly sad as the reality of the impact of Covid kicked in.
And I’m not the only one.
Research done by the Mental Health Foundation in the UK across 2020 highlighted just how many people used green spaces to manage stress (about 50% in fact). I felt very grateful to be able to access nature on my doorstep as I know it’s the not the case for everyone. The importance of this is highlighted in the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week: nature.
The good news is that nature and a connection with it doesn’t just mean walking in woods or swimming in oceans. There are little ways we can bring it into our homes and notice it in the world around us, even in cities. One of the things I heard again and again during the first lockdown was how people really noticed the sound of birds when the traffic stopped. Even just looking at pictures or listening to recorded sounds of nature can support our wellbeing.
There are also some specific mindfulness practices that connect with nature and Mental Health Awareness Week is a great opportunity to explore these. From visualisations to nature contemplation and mindful walking, bringing together nature and mindfulness is a beautiful way to boost your mental health.
Nature and Wellbeing
There are many reasons why nature is beneficial to our physical and mental wellbeing. One of the particular ideologies around that really resonates with me is the idea of nature connectedness.
The philosophy behind this is that we as humans are part of a web with nature, not sitting at the top of it. Within this way of thinking plants, soil, animals, insects and humans have a connected reliance on each other. There are even studies that have shown a great sense of nature connectedness (there’s a scale which measures how connected to nature we feel) is linked to increased happiness, decreased stress and, not surprisingly, greater environmental concern.
Spending time in nature one way to boost this connectedness. Having a broad mindfulness practice can also support this sense of connection, particularly if you explore meditations or exercises that focus on noticing and connecting with the world around you.
But the connection of nature and wellbeing goes beyond this. There are physical and physiological ways that time in nature gives us a boost.
One example is the exposure to mood enhancing plant oils, phytoncides, which can have a positive effect on our immunity, health and wellbeing. Many trees, spices and other plants give off these oils. They help protect plants, but are also beneficial for us humans.
And it’s not just the plants, but the soil they grow in. Healthy soil contains soil organisms that are good for our gut and our mental health; mycobacterum vaccae may help boost our serotonin production and has also been found to have anti-inflammatory and stress resilience properties. A little time getting dirty in the garden (including the balcony kind) or allotment is just one way to get some soil on your hands.
One of the areas that I find particularly fascinating is the soothing effect of naturally occurring fractal patterns in nature. Fractals are patterns that repeat at different scales and you’ll see them in trees, pinecones, clouds and snowflakes. The thinking behind why they affect us positively is that a stress-reduction is triggered by a physiological resonance within the eye when we look at these fractals in nature.
If this isn’t a good reason to take some time to stand and stare, I don’t know what it is.
Nature & Mindfulness
More broadly, taking learnings from mindfulness into our interactions with nature can help heighten our awareness of all the sensory elements of nature that are beneficial. From the looking to the listening, to the feeling through our skin and the smelling through our nose, are all ways to experience the nature around us.
However there are also some specific mindfulness and contemplation exercises that specifically involve nature One of the simplest and, I think, most beautiful is the practice of contemplation.
I first explore this in more detail as part of my meditation teacher training in Islington in London. The training was held in an old church on Upper Street, which is a very busy high street filled with traffic and people, so definitely not quiet. The little surrounding church yard was filled with trees and roses. Our exercise was to find a plant that resonated with us and to spend 5 to 10 minutes gently gazing at this plant, and touching it if we felt called to.
I chose a beautiful rose. It was amazing how quickly the background sound dropped away as I looked at the flower. It’s centre, the petals, their edges, the insects that buzzed in and around. When my mind drifted off a little, my eyes brought me back into focus. Our sight is our fasted sense to process and so using it as a way to connect felt very different to a sitting down eyes shut exercise. And it really is one of the best ways to practise having a beginner’s mind, pretending that it’s the first time you’ve ever seen a flower.
You can try this in the garden or park, with a pot plant at home or even looking at a beautiful image of a plant or flower.
The practice of mindful eating is also a nature connected one, as the wider meditation encourages you to bring to mind the journey of the food you’re eating, from plant to plate.
And the act of walking is something that can be done with a sprinkle of mindfulness. Rather than rushing from one point to the next, take time to feel your feet, to notice the world around you and maybe pause every now and then to take some time to be still and tune in. You might even find elements of nature in places where you least expect it.
Whether it’s looking, listening, tasting or walking, I always suggest starting small. Choose one thing that really resonates with you, give it a go, and see how it makes you feel. Just remember you don’t need to be completely surrounded by nature to experience some of the benefits, but adding a little bit more of the natural world into your life can have real benefits.
Why Nature is the theme for Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 – Mental Health Foundation
Identification and characterization of a novel anti-inflammatory lipid isolated from Mycobacterium vaccae, a soil-derived bacterium with immunoregulatory and stress resilience properties. Psychopharmacology volume 236, pages 1653–1670 (2019)
Why Fractals Are So Soothing – The Atlantic
Listen to Nature Sounds at headspace
I also highly recommend signing up for emails from Inkcap Journal, which describes itself as the place for in-depth journalism on nature in Britain