We asked Aura Goldman, an environmental psychologist from UK Youth for Nature how we can use nature to improve our mental health and wellness, here’s what she had to say:
Well first off, perhaps it’s a good idea to contextualise, and think about wellness in general. Wellness is multidimensional, and the dimensions that most psychologists have accepted that it includes are:
- Spiritual – which is all about the search for meaning and purpose in life,
- Physical – which is an acknowledgement of our need for a healthy lifestyle,
- Emotional – which addresses awareness, acceptance, and healthy expression of our emotions,
- Occupational – which is all about the personal satisfaction that comes from fulfilling work,
- Intellectual – which addresses our need for stimulating mental activity,
- Social – which acknowledges us as social animals who seek connection with others,
- Environmental – which is what I’m going to discuss in a little more detail!
Humans have long seen themselves as separate from nature, whether this be due to dominant cultural and religious narratives, or the by-product of our impressive intellect compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. Regardless of the cause, humans now find themselves in a situation where they are disconnected from the natural world, both physically and psychologically. Indeed, it is predicted that by 2050 most people will live in urban areas, so this disconnect is likely to keep getting worse
Why is this a problem?
It’s a problem because people who grow up in cities have higher social stress responses (brain regions associated with emotion become overactive which can create those feelings of stress), worse immune systems (because you’re far less likely to encounter microorganisms that help to regulate your immune system), are more likely to have psychiatric or mood disorders (this has been linked to pollution), are more tired, and the list really does go on.
So how can nature help? It improves mood, improves your physical health, reduces psychiatric symptoms, increases our resilience to mental illness, and improves self-esteem, creativity, and emotional and cognitive development.
Nature is not a panacea for mental health and wellness, but it is certainly a key element of overall wellbeing, and perhaps most critically, it is the facet of wellness that is most often neglected.
With that in mind, here are a few tips some of my clients (and I!) have enjoyed that might help you to purposefully use nature as a way of boosting your mental health (but remember – these are only suggestions, if you feel like any of these wouldn’t be good for you then don’t do it – you are the expert on yourself!):
- Take Sir David Attenborough’s advice and “sit down, don’t move, keep quiet… You’ll be very surprised if something pretty interesting didn’t happen within 10 minutes. Doing that in a woodland, if you haven’t done it, is extraordinary.”
- I love going on ‘sense walks’. All that means is that when I’m walking through a natural space, I pay close attention to one of my senses in particular. So, that means I might go for a…
- Sight walk
- Really focus on the natural world you can see around you. Pay attention to all the colours, forms, movements you can see.
- Hearing walk
- Really focus on what you can hear around you in the natural world. do different trees make different noises? How many different bird calls can you hear?
- Touch walk
- Really connect with all the different textures around you (make sure you know what nettles and poison ivy look like!).
- Smell walk
- Ever wondered what an oak tree smells like? What about grass after rain? Smell is a powerful sense and a great way to connect with nature (but remember to be careful where you stick your nose!).
- I wouldn’t recommend a taste walk unless you really know what you’re doing!
- Sight walk
- Changing perspectives is a mindful game I like to play when I’m in natural spaces. Here’s how I do it:
- Notice where there are animals around you, it could be your cat or dog, a bird, an insect, even another human!
- Imagine what the natural world is like for them, how might things look different, what draws their attention, what might they be cautious of? Try and step into their world.
- Grounding exercises in nature can be really powerful. Here’s how you do it:
- Take some deep breaths, and really pay attention to each breath, notice how it moves in and out of your body, notice how no two breaths are the same.
- Push your feet into the ground, notice that contact between your feet and the ground, maybe even imagine roots coming out of your feet and tethering you.
- Look at the natural world around you, maybe notice 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, and 2 things you can smell.
- Stay with that connection, here you are, part of the world, part of nature.
- Another mindful exercise that I enjoy involves noticing patterns:
- Find a place in nature that intuitively feels ‘right’, maybe it’s a place you stop at often, maybe it’s not – go with your gut!
- Just be still for a moment, soak in the place you’re chosen, maybe take a few deep breaths.
- Notice a pattern in the natural world around you, it might be a spread of branches, grass, dewdrops, tree canopies, just take your time and really experience that pattern.
- How does the pattern you found impact you? what’s happening to your breath, your body, your mind?
- Change your perspective and repeat the previous steps but either change how you’re positioned or go and find another place.
- When I’m walking in a town or city, I like to switch my attention away from the people and shops and lights and noise. Instead, I focus on what I like to call ‘rebel nature’. My eyes seek out weeds bursting through the pavement, moss growing on a wall, lichen sprouting on a handrail. Nature is everywhere, you just have to look for it.
- Get your hands dirty. Grow or take care of a plant (or multiple plants!). You can do this indoors or outdoors depending on what you have available to you.
Hurrah for nature!
This blog was written by Aura Goldman BSc, MSc, CPsychol, HCPC.
For more from Aura and her work, please visit @ukyouth4nature on the socials or head to https://youthfornature.uk/