Nature’s way to psychological health

By Alison Hayward, a specialist in horticultural therapy with MIND, the mental healthcare charity

The Covid pandemic has brought our relationship with the outdoors to the fore during the past year. Nature is now a comforting refuge, our safe place.  And in a year of continuously changing norms, the seasons and life’s natural order have become twin anchors in a sea of uncertainty.  

Our Mother’s advice to go out and get fresh air or run between the raindrops has taken on greater resonance and new meaning. The combination of exercise, meaningful activity and time in nature is a potent antidote against stress, anxiety and depression.

Even the soil itself can act as an anti-depressant – Mycobacterium vaccae, one of its constituents, has been found to mirror the effects of drugs like Prozac. It stimulates serotonin production and thereby makes us more relaxed and happier. 

In 2008, the New Economics Foundation (NEF) developed’ The five ways to wellbeing’.  They are evidence-based public health messages aimed at improving the mental health and wellbeing of the whole population.  These 5 a day are like the daily fruit and veg we need to build our health and resilience.

Getting Connected

The colours, natural light and special sights and sounds of nature all help put us back in touch with our senses and bring reassurance that there is some calm predictability in the lengthening of the days and warming of the soil. In short, plug into our surroundings for an instant antidote to those endlessly long months of Covid isolation which instilled heightened feelings of loneliness and lack of human connection – both of which carry far more dangerous impacts, in terms of human mortality, than obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. 

Being Active

It is crucial we become immersed and fully involved as an integral element in the development of our relationship with nature. Strolling along winding pathways, scrambling up grassy banks, or trekking across fields and down lanes all help make us more aware of our bodies instead of being unhealthily stuck in our own heads. Passing others doing the same invariably prompts a smile and inner warmth again.

Taking Notice

Whether it is watching the first Spring flowers bravely show their petals to the biting wind, an owl haunting the hedgerows or maybe the sky simply changing to its summer hues, nature rewards our noticing. It is the simple things that bring us joy.

Learning from Nature

The countryside is a vast classroom, and we should use it as a valuable learning resource in which to embrace new experiences and surprise ourselves. Forest Schools use all nature has to offer to educate youngsters in the outdoors – adults can experience exactly the same. It doesn’t matter if it is learning the songs of birds, how insect colonies interact or which wildflowers bloom when; the simple magic and endless pleasure it delivers is profound.

Giving of Yourself

Find the time to do all of the above and decide where you want to direct your attention and Mindfulness. Is it to be on the endless succession of news and events which tighten the heart or focused on the little things of life which comprise a world of timeless certainty and reassuring solace.

As we head into the light and warmth of Summer, we will notice that many of our priorities have changed, and now, more than ever, our daily dose from the natural health service will keep us well-grounded.