Mental Health Awareness Week: Nature as therapy

Welcome to Mental Health Awareness Week! This year’s theme is “Nature as Therapy” and is a theme I can really get behind. I mean, I do love a bit of nature and it really does help to keep my mental health in check!

Note: I recognise that nature is not a fix for all mental health issues and that it can be harmful as a blanket “prescription” for everyone who lives with mental health concerns. However, as with everything I write, this is about my personal experiences and is not meant to be a sweeping generalisation for all people (or even most people). 

My mental health is relatively good these days, given that we’re more than a year into a major global pandemic and I have been (mostly) isolated during this time. I am also relatively experienced with isolation and I have been isolating with relative privilege. It also helps that the “negative” mental health experiences I have had in my life have been situational (as opposed to clinical), mostly related to the grief of widowhood and the subsequent stress that comes with that – including how I [mis]manage my stress because I don’t have confidante to share my day-to-day stresses and worries with.  

I point out that my experiences have been situational because situational depression is (generally) managed differently than clinical depression and situational anxiety and panic attacks are (generally) managed differently than anxiety or panic disorders. Although, not managing situational depression or anxiety can lead to clinical depression or anxiety. And this is why I try to be aware of my mental health and why I go through a range of processes to ensure I am regularly doing self-checks to (hopefully) catch any early warning signs that indicate I might need more than myself to “fix” myself.

And that’s where “Nature as Therapy” comes in: Nature helps me to re-balance my soul in a way that can soothe my emotions and refresh my mental health. Indeed, nature is part of my intentional well-being practices along with journaling, mindfulness, and bi-annual talk therapy sessions (or more, when required).

When I think about my mental health and feelings of depression or sadness, I realise that I am generally able to “snap out of it” without an in-depth treatment plan or “professional intervention”. In fact, before widowhood, I coped with disappointment and uncertainty quite well and could just “shake off” negative experiences and move forward with a naïve belief that everything will work out for the best.

In my Widow Life, however, I find that I (sometimes) struggle to cope with life’s disappointments and uncertainly. And that leads me to feel stressed, anxious, and yes, a bit depressed. But even then, these situational experiences with depression (grief- or stress-related) and occasional sadness (the kind where we say “I’m depressed” but we’re just upset about something) have been easy for me to shake it off with a bit of nature, exercise, or fresh air – or all three at once! (I don’t really count running outside as experiencing nature, but it can also help with my mental health.)

Clarification: “Snapping out of it” doesn’t generally happen with one visit to nature. When I am struggling with a situation that is knocking my mental health for a loop, I need to keep doing nature (and the rest) until the situation resolves or until I have found ways to move beyond/cope with the situation.

But I digress … back to “Nature as Therapy”!

Nature provides therapy for the heart, as well as the body, mind, and soul.

For me, the idea of “nature as therapy” is both curative and preventative – although it’s not always easy and sometimes I have to force myself to take my Nature Pills. But I mostly manage to stay on top of my nature routines which is good news for my overall mental health!

“Curative” Nature is for when I am in the midst of feeling upset, lonely, or “depressed”. When I feel that way, I will sometimes force myself outside into nature for some fresh air. This is especially true if I’ve been feeling lonely or upset for a couple of days, as I know the longer, I sit the more likely I am to start feeling sorry for myself. On those days, I work to motivate myself outside, even if I don’t have a plan.

It might be that I grumpily head outside to look at a specific bit of nature. For example, I might make myself go to my favourite tree to see how it’s doing, or I’ll go in search of something “nature-y” to photograph. By doing this, I am getting at least 30 minutes of fresh air and I often find myself happy enough with the adventure that I will carry on looking at other things. Indeed, sometimes those little visits to nature end up being quite a long and enjoyable walk. By the time I return home, I feel happier, calmer, and more loving of myself.

“Preventative” Nature is my normal form of Nature Pills because I know I am likely to start feeling sorry for myself if I stay inside for too long (stemming from feeling lonely and alone). To prevent that, I plan adventures, especially ones that have an element of fresh air and exercise. In fact, this blog helps with that because I will plan an outing in a way that I know I will have something fun to blog about.

As part of my Preventative Nature activities, I often read about my destination in advance so that I know what kind of wonderful things I need to keep an eye out for. Because I am generally on a solo adventure, I find this helps me to focus on something specific, giving me a “purpose” of sorts which makes me feel less awkward about living solo in a world designed for couples and groups. I am also a bit of an information geek, which means that I can use some of my nature adventures as learning adventures. And learning is fun!

Whilst my mental health has been relatively OK for the past year, it has been a little harder to maintain a balanced mental disposition because I normally draw energy from a range of sources that extend far beyond nature: Friends, travel, built environments, the hustle and bustle and society, and more! But I know that I am luckier than so many because I have all this nature right on my doorstep, and I can enjoy it whilst maintaining social distance (and then some!) from others.

As it’s Mental Health Awareness Week and my own personal Mindful May, I will be spending some extra time enjoying nature over the next seven days. I don’t have a set plan for adventures and activities, in part because the weather forecast is a little sketchy this week, but I will try to engage with more intention this week. And, if the weather holds out for Saturday, I will be enjoying a full day’s adventure into The Pentlands, taking in nature along the way (but ultimately in search of a non-nature destination hidden in the hills).

My engagement with nature and her therapeutic goodness won’t end when Mental Health Awareness Week ends. In fact, I will be participating in The Wildlife Trusts’ “30 Days of Wild” challenge in June. It’s a great way to incorporate “random acts of wildness” into your days and I invite you to join me if you can. After all, taking care of your mental health should be a priority all year long, not just during awareness weeks!

Join the conversation!