ne of the key things I have learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lock downs and restrictions is how much enjoying nature has been a huge part of helping my own mental health.
Enjoying nature for me comes in many different ways including dog walking, horse riding and running and can often be a very welcome distraction when day to day life gets difficult or overwhelming.
One of the things I love about where I live at the moment is that I am very close to different types of nature and can enjoy lakes, woods, plains and farmlands.
Nature and mental health
Studies have shown that exposure to nature can reduce negative emotions, stress, anxiety and depression (see link at the end for research paper). Studies have also found that whilst being in nature is great, paying attention to the nature around you is even better for mental health.
So why is mindfulness helpful?
Mindfulness was incorporated into psychological interventions by Kabat-Zinn in 1990 and can be done formally, as in sitting and meditating, or informally by bringing mindful attention to everyday life or tasks.
The aim of mindfulness is to practice being in an aware state that is not trying to evaluate or judge an experience, i.e. just being in the present moment, whatever that is.
When we are working with people who have issues like stress, anxiety and depression, we are dealing with cognitions or thought processes like:
“I can’t cope”, “I’m not good enough”, “What if the worst happens?”, “I am pointless”, “No-one will ever like me”, “I’m not good enough” and many, many more.
These thoughts and judgements are brought into our daily life and affect how we feel and how we act. These thoughts can also take up valuable attention span which means we often miss important details or forget things in our daily lives.
Practicing mindfulness can give us an opportunity to practice experiencing the present moment as it is and learning to be more aware of our thoughts and our reactions to them.
A relaxing meditation based around a soothing campfire
Mindfulness in nature
It stands to reason that if nature can help reduce stress, anxiety and depression and mindfulness can reduce anxiety, panic and depression then combining the two will be of great benefit to our mental health.
By noticing the nature around you, you can start to notice yourself in relation to nature as part of a larger and intrinsically linked reason for existing.
Give it a go yourself
There is a really nice mindfulness exercise that I find to be really calming and enjoyable when I am out in nature. It helps build awareness of the different aspects of nature around you and can be really helpful if you find that your mind is running away with you or you are worrying about something.
I can’t remember where I got it from so apologies for the lack of reference or proper accreditation, but it consists of some very simple questions.
While you are enjoying a walk or run or just spending time in nature (even your garden is fine) ask yourself each of the following questions in any order:
- What can you see? Include in this any colours, shapes, spaces, light etc
- What can you smell? This one is especially amazing when it has rained recently
- What can you touch? Notice the different textures of bark, leaves, soft plants and brambles.
- What can you taste? If you breathe in through your mouth, what do you notice? (maybe don’t put random things in your mouth unless you know that they are definitely edible)
- What can you hear? Think about what animals might be around, how the wind sounds or whether you can hear anything else.
If you feel like turning your mindful awareness on yourself at this point, then consider how you feel and how you may be linked to the environment that you have just become aware of.