25 May 2018 by Phil Pickin
For those of us who enjoy the countryside, it will come as no surprise that increasing numbers of people have acknowledged a direct link between access to nature and good mental health.
A recent study by Natural England showed that taking part in nature-based activities can help those suffering from mental health issues like depression, anxiety and stress. In the study, the phrase ‘green care’ was used to describe the multiple benefits. Since then, the so-called ‘natural health service’ has increasingly been cited as one way to ease the pressure on the National Health Service.
Further studies have reinforced the findings. In 2017 the University of Exeter published a paper on joint research carried out with the British Trust for Ornithology and the University of Queensland. They found that people who live in areas close to woodland and birdlife are less likely to suffer from many mental health problems.
One recognised way to focus on nature and take advantage of its mental health benefits is through the practice of ‘mindfulness’ (the meditative discipline that focuses on an awareness of your surroundings at a given moment in time). Mindfulness has recently exploded in popularity, with a slew of groups, apps and books appearing devoted to the subject. These are all aimed at helping those who want to use the method, by enabling them to focus on an awareness of the present. This concept may sound simple, but the idea is to practice this while accepting that feelings, sensations and thoughts can come and go in the mind while meditating. It would seem that it is this acceptance and acknowledgement of what might be considered ‘intrusive’ thoughts that have contributed to the popularity of mindfulness.
For anyone who’s never tried any form of meditation, the idea of becoming ‘mindful' might seem somewhat alien, but there are numerous parallels with the ways in which – and the reasons why – people spend time outdoors (as many of the aforementioned studies have highlighted). For example, many of us see the great outdoors and getting back to nature as a way to unwind and to relax. Walking, in particular, is proven to help lower stress levels, so by combining this with disciplines like mindfulness, the benefits of time spent outdoors can be multiplied.
After all, while walking, we often get absorbed in a particular moment in time. The sound of birdsong, the smell of fresh air, the warmth of the sun on our faces (sometimes at least!) not only connects us to the world around us, but often distracts us from the stresses of everyday life. It’s a similar mind-set to ‘mindfulness’. So in many ways, if these are things you enjoy whilst out walking, you are already practising much of what is taught when learning to meditate in this way. And with the focus on being acutely aware of a particular moment and place, you may also become more aware of the huge range and diversity of wildlife that surrounds you – a very valuable skill for anyone who already enjoys the natural world and wants to learn more about it.
The great thing about this form of ‘green care’ is that, unlike other prescribed treatments, it’s free and has no side effects. And although many of the studies undertaken have looked at the benefits of treatment for those already suffering problems, connecting with nature can also be an excellent preventative too. Quite apart from connecting with nature and wildlife, it often results in increased connections with other people. This type of positive engagement has formed part of many studies, where significant improvements in the mental health of volunteers have been assessed and recorded.
All in all, it would seem that spending more time outdoors, close to nature, is better for almost everyone. And although this won’t come as a shock to many of us, it’s good to see that the benefits are now being backed up by serious study. The results may only confirm what we already knew, but the research is just as welcome. And now that mindfulness presents an opportunity to undertake forms of ‘walking meditation’, it looks like even more people will find ways to benefit from a calm mind and an increased awareness of the world around them.
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