The Mental Health Of Nature

I have always counted myself as reasonably lucky. Although, like everyone, I have had my ups and downs, my life thus far has thankfully been more-or-less free of all those horrors we read about in the daily news. I have a loving supportive family, a happy home, and access to many wonderful things which make me happy.

Over the years, I have witnessed friends and relatives face varying mental health challenges, with varying results. An awareness of mental health is something that I have been brought up with, and, along with any disability, condition or ‘difference’ it has never been something I have viewed negatively or attributed stigma to. In that too, I am lucky. Many people simply don’t understand, and some simply wont.

However lucky I am, I am not invincible; I am human, and as such have complex and detailed needs and a mind that works in ways still only partly understood by science. What we do understand is that mental health is just a potentially vulnerable as physical health. Just as I wash my hands regularly or put on sun-cream when working outdoors, I feel it is important to look after my mind.

This, and my passion for the natural world, has lead me to read with great interest recent stories and research around the benefits of contact with nature on both body and mind. A summary of recent theories include patients in hospital recovering quicker if they have a window which looks out onto green-space, time spent in nature boosting children’s concentration and performance in school, nature in the form of gardening being used as therapy treatments for depression, anxiety, PTSD and dementia… the list goes on. I have seen first hand, children who usually struggle socially or academically, light up and achieve a new connection with the world and with other people during simple nature activities such as pond dipping. Someone I am particularly close to, a former soldier and truck driver now countryside worker, comes home from a long walk through the woods with their dog, far more relaxed and contented than they ever did from hours hunched behind the wheel on the motorway.

This past week I was struck down by a nasty stomach virus, and even after the first few days of symptoms passed, I was left with aches and fatigue and tears behind my eyes. This isn’t the first time I have been unwell recently; it seems as though I have caught most of the bugs ‘doing the rounds’ this last year and this, along with the break in routine with time off work and a number of other worries, resulted in a lingering low mood. Sitting in my garden, watching the flowers and the bees and beetles, and feeling the warmth of the sun whilst clouds of house martins twittered overhead conducted by a singing blackbird, did far more to heal me than any dose of medication.

Some followers of my Twitter feed will know that I have recently acquired a small allotment. I have mentioned in the past how I find the last months of winter long and tedious, with short dark grey days draining inspiration and motivation far quicker than my internal batteries can restore. Walking has always helped; getting out into the fresh air, feeling the space, and seeing wildlife, acts as a sort of ‘decompression’ at any time of year, and I invariably return lighter and more positive than I left. Over the past three months however, I have noticed a shift. You could put it down to the arrival of the joys of spring and brighter days, or perhaps to having a goal and a focus in my plan for my new garden space. I believe however, that having an allotment could be changing my life.
All I can say for certain is that when I return from a day at the plot, (where I have had my hands in the soil, my sight filled with shades of green, birdsong ringing in my ears, undoubtably breathing in countless beneficial microbes, and taking time to allow my mind to relax), I feel a significant lift in my mood and a realistic boost to my ‘mental immune system’.

Put simply, contact with nature, particularly through the immediately, easily and intimately accessible form of my gardening, makes me happier, healthier, and more resilient.

Thanks Nature, I owe you. 

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