As I therapist I talk to people a lot about their mental health and wellbeing. As a teacher, a large part of training counsellors is helping them explore their limits, and learning how to maintain and developing their wellbeing. As Lead Counsellor in conversations with our team we talk about what keeps our mental wellbeing as good as it can be. In all of those conversations nature and connecting with nature features. So, what is it about nature that seems to be so key to maintaining and enhancing our mental health?
Well, for a start the colours green, blue and yellow are calming, soothing, refreshing, energising and comforting. Last time I checked grass, trees, sea, sky, and natural light are those colours. In fact, it has been proven that even if you are inside but looking at or can see a green outside space you feel calmer and less stressed and that is just looking at it let alone being out in it! It is no surprise that when Covid hit and we were only allowed outside for 1 hour a day people’s mental health took a plummet. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that those living in more urban areas fond this more then those living in more rural areas.
I have always enjoyed being outside, and I love being outside in bad weather. My fondest memories are being out on moors, or on beaches or piers in the wind and rain. Wind and rain invigorates and energises me. It makes me feel alive and it connects me to a very child like spirit of energy. I also love coming inside after being out in the rain and warming up by a fire, changing my clothes, and/or having a warm drink, or better yet a pub lunch.
This passion for outdoors meant when I decided I wanted to train to be a counsellor and therapist I knew I wanted to use nature as part of that in someway. Walk and Talk therapy seemed an obvious thing to look into. You can go for a walk anywhere but I tend to go for a walk, or sometimes sit on a bench and talk surrounded by trees. The feedback from clients is really interesting, they often find being out in nature calming and helpful. The act of walking offers a very literally natural rhythm within which the work can take place. Sometimes the rhythm and/ or speed changes inline with their feelings and where they are in their journey. Walking can seemingly aid in clients feeling able to open up and be more comfortable with silence. In fact, one client who had to move a walk and talk session to online found the change in not moving through and being in nature was surprising. They felt a real need to have things to say. We talked about that difference and how normally there is the crunch of the path under our feet, there are trees, insects and flowers to look at and talk about. And also the setting inspires the imagination and connect to things in a different way.
Being out in nature rather than in a room can really help with clients who have had negative or are suspicions of more formal institution style of therapy or treatment. Nothing is further from white light, white walls and overly clean spaces than trapsing through mud, in wind, rain, dodging branches, touching foliage and admiring butterflies. Walking by their side, is not only a very literal representation of the work we are doing, but where I am not sat in front of them eye contact is not a requirement. This lack of eye contact and lack of social demand for eye contact really helps clients and particularly some neurodiverse clients feel more relaxed and able to express themselves. Possibly, as well, in a similar way to phone counselling, where you can see less of the person you are talking to you can open up more and quicker. Plus exercise even gentle exercise for as little as 10 minutes can release all sorts of happy hormones and chemicals which boost our mood, reduce stress and aids clarity of mind.
There is plenty of science that backs all of this up, but personally, I believe there is something simpler, ancient and more human behind the benefits of being outdoors- we are nature. We forget that, we often think of nature as something separate to us, something to be controlled, overcome, outfoxed, dominated, extracted from, wary of. Yet, we ourselves are nature.
In this modern world it is so easy to forget that. We spend most of our lives incased in brick, concrete, glass and mental; be that cars, offices, or our houses. We spend our time interacting with and through metal, glass and plastic; tablets, phones laptops, TVs. As I write this I am sat in my house on a laptop, with the TV on as background noise. I am as disconnected as anyone else from nature. It is raining- I love the sounds of rain, but I am choosing to have TV background noise rather than listen to the rain. Being out in nature and walking allows us to reconnect with an ancient part of us that craves a return to nature or recognition of the fact we are nature, we come from it and we return to it. We see ourselves and our human nature reflected in the natural world; the changing weather reflects our moods, feelings and emotions; the season reflect our life cycle or growing, blooming, gathering in, fading, resting and dying; the interactions of insects animals and trees shows us/ reminds up of the interconnectedness of everything and everyone. These reflections and representations can be painful: death can be a hard thing to face; the fact our actions impact others can be something we would rather not think about; the fact the weather is not always find and lovely can be a painful representation of tougher times in our lives. But whilst the rain may dappen our plans or result in grey skies and ruined washing, it also provides balm and life; it teaches us that sometimes what seems bad now will be balanced out by the plants that will thrive following the rainfall.
Although as the song says, Natural is not in it- Nature is. We come from it and we return to it, it soothes, energises us; it clears our minds; it boosts our happiness and helps us make sense of things. So whether you are in an urban or rural area, housebound or able to roam free try to get some nature in your life. Be that going for a walk, working on the garden, getting some house plants, or visiting a beach, feel the sun on your face, the ground under your feet and fresh air in your lungs.