Nature and Mental Health

Looking back, it often feels strange that something I love so much came in to my life at a time that was so dark and lonely, but I discovered Forest School when my son was a baby, when I was recovering from post-natal depression and anxiety. I quickly realised that it not only provided a place for both us to learn about the natural world. But it also provided much more, this time in nature was hugely restorative for my mental health when more conventional therapies hadn’t helped me. Forest School gave us a regular reason to spend whole mornings in nature, away from our suburban lives. When we were there I felt calmer and happier. The UK mental health charity, Mind, says that regular time in can help with mild to moderate depression and eco-therapies like social-gardening and forest bathing are now prescribed around the world. Being a naturally curious person, I’ve been intrigued as to why being in nature and developing a connection with nature helped provide me with a coping strategy.

Research about the impact on nature on our mental health is ongoing, but here’s what we know so far:

Researchers have found that there is a direct correlation between low levels of vitamin D and increased risk of depression. We don’t yet fully understand why this is, but scientists have found that there are vitamin D receptors in the areas of our brain associated with the development of depression and the best natural source of Vitamin D is UV light, outdoors from sunlight, which can be synthesised by our skin. Though we do still need to be sun-safe!

Research has also shown that bacteria in soil, known as Mycobacterium vaccae, can activate our brain cells to produce the ‘happiness’ chemical seratonin in a similar way to antidepressants. A lack of serotonin has been linked to depression and anxiety. This ‘friendly’ bacteria can get in to your bloodstream just through contact with the soil.

Being in nature can also provide you with a peaceful and undistracted place to practice mindfulness. Research from Oxford University has demonstrated that Mindfulness therapies can prevent relapses of depression and could provide an alternative to long-term antidepressant use. Practising mindfulness is not just about seated meditation, there are many ways to find a place just to be in the present. For me, and many other people, this comes more easily when I am in a more natural environment and away from the distractions of everyday life.

I found my nature place at Forest School, but if you are struggling to find a place for you to spend time in nature, here are some tips:

1 – Mindful Walking/ Mindful Mapping: Go outside and simply start walking. The key to walking mindfully is to pay attention and to notice your surroundings, rather than being lost in thought. Our minds wander naturally, this is normal, but when you get home sketch a map of your walk and add as much detail as you can. The next time you go for the same walk, try to pay even more attention and see what else you can add to your map on your return.

2 – Spot Sitting: Sit in a natural spot or just by a window with a view and see what you can see. Sit in the same spot on a regular basis and just be present. If you find your mind wandering you could try to identify species of trees, listen for different bird song, play games with the shapes in the clouds or chart the phases of the moon. Visit the same spot regularly and see how it changes through time.

3 – Plant some seeds. Either outdoors or indoors, planting seeds in soil will get you in contact with some of that friendly bacteria, Nurturing and watching plants from seed can also help us feel more connected to natural world.

Spending time in nature has been shown to help mild to moderate mental health problems and some of these techniques may help you feel more connected with the natural world. However, if you are suffering with your mental health please speak to your GP.  You are not alone. You might also find helpful:

The Samaritans –  Providing emotional support 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week –  Phone: 116 123 www.samaritans.org

PANDAS Foundations – For everyone affected by peri-natal mental health issues – Phone 0843 2898 401 www.pandasfoundation.org.uk

Action for Happiness – More resources and evidence-based ideas for actions to make us feel happier www.actionforhappiness.org

A version of this article originally appeared in the Autumn edition of Robin & Rose Nature magazine

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