Tips & tricks / by Maia Tilbury
This past week saw the annual occurrence of Mental Health Awareness Week, where the theme this year was 'nature'. During the pandemic, the majority of society has experienced a slower pace of life and fewer distractions and, consequently, many of us have turned to nature as a source of escapism.
After being inspired by nature last week, I’ve put together 5 ways you can incorporate natural elements into everyday living to improve your mental health.
1) Go for a walk outside!
Going for a walk outdoors is one of the simplest, yet most effective ways of mentally benefitting from nature.
Just like most forms of regular exercise, walking can help reduce stress and anxiety, reduce chances of physical diseases such as obesity (walking in particular can work wonders for fat loss!), improve symptoms of depression and anxiety such as fatigue, and even enhance your sleep. When we walk outdoors, we also experience plenty of sensory stimulation that can be positively distracting, which may in turn encourage gratitude and alter our perspective.
Walking outdoors has also been shown to have neurochemical benefits. According to a Harvard study in 2015, research found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural setting, compared to an urban one, experienced lower activity in the prefrontal cortex – an area of the brain associated with emotions. In people with some mental health issues, the prefrontal cortex can become overactive which may explain the occurrence of negative thought loops and overthinking.
2) Meditate in nature
Meditation is all about being present and developing a mind-body connection. Mindfulness (a meditation style that focuses on approaching thoughts without judgement or further interpretation) can be a useful, everyday, technique for challenging negative thoughts and emotions.
The main advantages of meditating include improved mood and the reduction of physical and psychological symptoms of anxiety and stress, all through achieving a state of calm.
Adding an outdoor environment to the mix can really help reinforce awareness of our surroundings and improve our concentration while meditating, which can result in a deeper, more effective meditative session. Even just experiencing sounds of nature can have therapeutic effects, plus you can practice the term ‘grounding’ quite literally.
So, why not find a spot outdoors – either in your garden or somewhere else peaceful that you know?
3) Become a plant parent
Why not embrace your green thumb and grow a house plant, plant some herbs or buy a succulent (this last option is very low maintenance)?
The benefits of house plants include improved air quality which can enhance concentration and reduce headaches. An increase of oxygen can also improve energy levels, mood and productivity.
A 2009 study found that hospital patients with plants in their room actually recovered better and experienced less pain, anxiety and fatigue, suggesting that plants have a calming effect.
Of course, you also get the added benefit of plants being aesthetically pleasing in pretty much any room, while watching them grow and flourish after caring for them can really fill you with a sense of satisfaction!
4) Plan a day out(side)
Restrictions of the pandemic may be slowly easing but don’t neglect being outside, especially as the summer months approach. Invite a friend out for a coffee and a walk, a picnic in the park or perhaps just drinks in the garden.
By simply being outside, we can really supercharge the benefits we receive from nature. When it's sunny for example, being outside means that we're getting direct contact with sunlight which results in an increased production of vitamin D (an important vitamin for bone, teeth and muscle health), not to mention that sunny weather can increase levels of serotonin (a hormone responsible for mood regulation). Nature has also been linked with reduced levels of cortisol (a hormone most often linked with stress) which is responsible for physiological factors such as high blood pressure and increased heart rate.
For those of us that aren't lucky enough to have a garden, the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics says that there are around 62,000 'urban green areas' dotted around the UK, including many beautiful public gardens, parks and nature reserves, so there are plenty of options to choose from!
Some of my favourites include Kew Gardens (London), the Lake District (Cumbria), or the RHS Garden Wisley (Surrey).
5) Immerse yourself in water
If you’re brave enough, find a body of water and get into it – whether that’s in the sea or wild swimming in a lake. The benefits of swimming in fresh (or salt) water include reduced muscle soreness and inflammation, which aids recovery, as well as improved circulation and a boosted immune system. Additionally, swimming can stimulate your metabolism and aid in improving alertness.
In terms of mental health, cold water can help increase levels of dopamine (a hormone responsible for feelings of pleasure) and release endorphins (a chemical that relieves stress/pain and produces euphoric feelings).
Check out www.wildswimming.co.uk for suggested locations and further advice.
This year's Mental Health Awareness Week may be over, and with it the theme of 'nature'. But as many of us have seen over the past 15 months or so, nature can have some profound, revitalising and energising effects on our mental health. So rather than thinking that the time to bring nature into our lives is over, let's start making nature a regular part of our lives.
Treat your mental health and connect with nature!
Written by Maia Tilbury
Contributor for Talking Mental Health