One of the lessons to come from living through the global pandemic has been a greater appreciation of the therapeutic power of Nature, making it the perfect theme for this year's Mental Health Awareness Week. As we transition to a new chapter post lockdown, Nature remains the most accessible way to nourish ourselves, our children and our families. Mother Nature can also play a powerful role in our motherhood journey, bringing messages of comfort, calm and deep resolve. While we have an intuitive understanding that nature is beneficial for the mind and body, science is consistently showing us new ways in which our lives are enriched by it. In this blog we’ll explore those benefits, take a deeper look at the underlying mechanisms and broaden your self-care toolkit with practical inspiration using Nature as an anchor.
As a chartered psychologist and health coach, I am a huge advocate for “Nature therapy”. It was my tonic when I became a Mum at the same time as losing my father, Nature helping me to reinvigorate effortlessly a tired mind and body, to process my emotions, and to make sense of my experiences. And now in my role as a psychologist I would much rather go for a walk and talk session than sit opposite each other in a consulting room because moving in a natural environment tends to alleviate self-consciousness and judgement, and so often the work is expedited by virtue of Nature’s beauty. Having grown up on the sunny Northern beaches of Sydney and now living in the green hills of Hertfordshire I am fascinated by the significance of different places, the meaning we attach to them and how different environments have different energetic effects. Whenever we feel burdened by life, we can take it to Mother Nature and she will be our guide.
Scientific studies are being released every year suggesting that spending time in green space or bringing nature into your everyday life can benefit both your mental and physical wellbeing. Today we are seeing a new fields of research including:
Ecopsychology, which studies the relationship between humans and the natural world, with a focus on wellbeing.
Ecotherapy, an application of ecopsychology, which looks at how we can use nature as a therapy to promote growth and healing, especially in regards to mental health.
Horticultural therapy, which specifically looks at how we can use gardening and plant based activities to improve health and wellbeing, as well as social skills.
Research from these fields brings us tangible evidence that Nature is not only nice to have but it's a have-to-have for physical, emotional and mental health and for the health of our relationships.
What are the therapeutic benefits of Nature for our health and wellbeing?
Mood. We’re well versed with the effects that the weather has on our mood. We know how much harder winter lockdown was compared to summer. SAD – seasonal affective disorder, shows just how much we are affected by the availability of daylight. Even if you don’t personally experience SAD, hibernation mode is real and the natural resurgence of energy and optimism that comes with the rebirth of spring is tangible.
Brain power and energy. We’ve all been there, mojo flagging, overwhelmed at the thought of another game of Guess Who, but a quick stroll around the block or even just looking out the window, blows out the cobwebs, restoring us mentally, boosting our concentration, creativity, and problem solving ability.
Physical healing. When recovering from illness or injury, Nature can expedite the physical healing and repair process. We’d rather convalesce in an environment rich in Nature, right?
Gut health. Being in Nature boosts the diversity of our gut microbiome, boosting the health of our immune system.
Stress relief. When we feel pushed around by life, anxious or worried – notice how time in Nature calms and soothes you, releasing physical and mental tension.
Focusing the mind. If you’ve dabbled in mindfulness you will have already discovered that many mindfulness practices use nature as an anchor - a powerful way to dial down rumination and quieten mental chatter.
Emotional health. In the midst of loss, change and grief, have you noticed how we look to Nature for comforting messages and meaning?
Escapism. When we need to escape the demands on modern life – where do we go to unplug? Mother Nature allows us to reboot ourselves and leave it all behind.
Connection and compassion. For families, Nature can provide a common bond where other activities and interests might be limited by age differences – it is something we can all enjoy together whether we are 4, 14 or 40, providing opportunities for connection and memory making. If you take a moment to call to mind precious memories, how many of these feature natures beauty? Trips to the seaside, country walks, savouring a sunset? Being in Nature deepens our bonds, creates a feeling of belonging and encourages us to be kinder and more compassionate.
But how does it work?
Let’s look to the research to understand the variety of mechanisms at play
Exactly how does nature soothe us? Research into “fractals”– the calming patterns present in Nature explains the mechanism. Fractals are patterns that occur on a progressively finer scale like coastlines, sand dunes, clouds trees, leaves, feather, shells, and even in the human body, like lungs and capillaries. When we see fractal patterns we have a neurophysiological response, lowering stress hormones and cultivating a wakeful but relaxed brain state and the beauty is, once you know what they are, you tend to see more of them.
Another mechanism that explains the calming effect of Nature is ‘panoramic gaze’. Our days are full of the stimulation of screen time, with its narrow gaze and close up vision. Lockdown life has made us all acutely aware of tech stress, the tension we feel in the muscles around our eyes, jaw, shoulders and upper back. On the other hand, panoramic gaze is where we look outside, far away, opening up our field of vision, ideally seeking out the green of Nature. Even short exposure has potent stress relieving effects, calming the brain, lowering cortisol. Soft, distant gaze encourages more spacious thinking whereas the lazer sharp focus of screen work makes us more myopic. Zoom out and put things into perspective with Mother Nature.
We know that a dose of sunlight lifts the mood but the benefits go much deeper! In addition to absorbing vitamin D, a dose of morning sunlight helps us sleep… the Holy Grail for any parent. Morning sunlight reinforces your natural circadian rhythms, helping us sleep at night. Besides light, the warmth of the sun facilitates our natural thermoregulation process which also helps the healthy functioning of our body clock. Exposure to sunlight is associated with a release in serotonin the “feel good” hormone – which explains the antidepressant effects of daylight. Serotonin is metabolised by your pineal gland into melatonin, also helping us feel sleepy at the right time. There is one more mechanism by which sunlight boosts our health, this is by virtue of our immune function. Sun exposure helps our immune cells move faster round our body, helping to fight inflammation. All excellent reasons to get out and catch some rays.
In our heavily sanitised current lifestyle, we need a good dose of ‘hands in the soil’ to keep our immune system healthy. In green space there is better diversity of bugs and more bugs that are beneficial to us, boosting our microbial diversity. The more contact we have with green space, breathing it in, getting our hands in it, the more we allow these good microbes to infiltrate and nourish our immune system. A healthy gut microbiome is also fundamental to our mental health. 95% of the body’s serotonin is produced by bacteria in the gut, which explains the link between gut health and mental health.
Nature provides a powerful hook for our attention, distracting us from unhelpful thoughts. Research from Positive Psychology shows that the skills of mindfulness, appreciation, awe and curiosity are all potent mood boosters. Time in Nature naturally lends to the development of all these abilities and here is where we can learn from our children – mini masters of observation and fascination!
It’s not just mindfulness and awe, it’s also the aroma from trees that holds their stress-busting power. Studies on forest bathing from Japan show that being in Nature, connecting through your senses, can boost your immune system, reduce stress and reduce the risk of chronic diseases. Breathing in the aroma from trees has an effect on the number and function of immune cells, specifically the natural killer cells, which are first line virus killers and part of the body’s natural surveillance system protecting us from cancer.
We all know that being by the seaside is soothing and walking bare foot in the grass is grounding. But how does this work? We have negative ions to thank. They are found in crashing waves or in a forest, and you breathe them in as they evaporate from moving water and plants. Negative ions attach themselves to oxidants, neutralising them, and thereby reducing oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is linked with many chronic inflammatory diseases, from cancer to allergies to asthma. Yet another reason to down tools and get out in it.
How can we integrate more nature into our lives?
There is no right or wrong way to do it, a Nature fix will always be beneficial but be guided by what resonates for you. It is not a one size fits all approach – the countryside will call to for some, manicured gardens will speak to another, getting your hands in the soil might work for you or enjoying a vase of cut flowers might be more your thing. There are so many ways that we can harness the therapeutic potential of Nature - mindfulness, creative pursuits, meditative and reflective practices. Be in it, look at it, listen to it, or think about it. Let’s take a look!
Nourishing practices using Nature as an anchor
Get out in it!
Explore how different environments can change the way you feel. Seek out moving water to cleanse, re-energise and remove stagnation or search out still water for calm and clarity. Head to forest or woodland for grounding and stability. Let the wind blow away the cobwebs – or maybe for you it ruffles your feathers! Enjoy open space to channel a feeling of freedom or possibility. Look to mountains or cliffs for a sense of strength, perspective and resolve. There are so many mindfulness practices to enjoy with your kids: green gazing where you watch the canopy of trees moving in the breeze as an antidote to the stimulation of screen time. Take a walk where you choose one sense to focus on - the scent of flowers in summer, the autumn hues or the crunch of snow underfoot in winter. Try a Nature count, the types of leaves, flowers or birds that you can find. Get down on all fours and try a four leaf clover search or mini beast hunt. Savour a sun rise (there should be some reward for those early starts), enjoy some cloud gazing or expand your mind with some star watching.
Bring Nature inside.
Gift yourself some cut flowers or simple potted plants – just remember to pop them somewhere prominent where you can let your eyes rest on them often… For an effort free dose of nature therapy, enjoy a natural motifs in your home decoration like cushions and curtains, or dot nature talismans around the house - driftwood, shells, sea glass, pebbles, crystals, whatever has personal significance for you. Change your screen saver to a fractal pattern – pine cone or broccoli is perfect, or simply wear it – you can’t beat a Nature print for a feeling of calm.
Make art with Nature – leaf drawings, collages, petal mandalas, rock painting, or enjoy a taste of your childhood with a flower press or some grown up self-expression with floral arrangements.
Head out with your family with the express intention to connect, bond and savour together. Choose a focus like awe, curiosity or gratitude and enjoy giving voice to what you find along the way. Watch a documentary together, play a Nature bingo game or feed the local wildlife – a butterfly house, bird feeder, nuts for squirrels provide plenty of entertainment all year round.
Create a calm, safe place meditation with your children, describing a journey to your favourite spot, using all your senses, which can be a perfect pre-bedtime ritual. Enjoy the sensation of walking bare foot in the grass or meditate on the energy you receive from the sun, imagining a chord connecting you and filling you up with precious energy. Listen to nature sounds, stroke the cat or play with the dog.
Now this is where Nature comes to the fore in helping us make peace with the challenges of Motherhood. Draw on nature as a metaphor for life, helping you cope, process your emotions and make sense of your experiences. Nature really is the guru of change – the four seasons help us make peace with the seasons in our life, helping us come to terms with there being a time to bloom, a time to decay, and that change and death are both normal and inescapable parts of life. The tenacity of the daffodils emerging through the snow reminds us that we can also be bold and have faith! The flexibility and resilience of bamboo – we too can bend so we don’t break. We can be inspired by the strength of the weeping willow and its ability to regenerate, the grit and determination of the flower that blooms from the crack in the pavement, the eruption of new life after fire. The majesty of cliffs, standing firm against the tide, remind us that we can stand tall like a mountain. The wisdom of the farmer resting his fields – we too can respect the deep purposefulness of the fallow time. Imagine the self-flagellation, guilt and burnout we would avoid if we gave ourselves permission to honour this principle! And the butterfly that bides its time in transition, reminding us that we can also take our time, go at our own pace and emerge when we are ready. How perfect is that image for this new chapter after lockdown.
Suzy is a mother of two, an author, Chartered Psychologist and Coach. She specialises in self-care, helping people manage their stress, emotions, and energetic bank balance. It was her life experience of motherhood colliding with the terminal illness of her father that sparked her passion for self-care which she now teaches to her clients, young and old, to cope during periods of stress, loss and change and to boost their resilience in the face of future challenges. Suzy is on the editorial board for Motherdom Magazine, the Psychology Expert for wellbeing brand Neom Organics and is a founding member of the ‘Nourish’ app. She figure-skated her way through her childhood, growing up on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, and now makes her home in the hills of Hertfordshire, UK. Her first book ‘The Self-Care Revolution’ published by Aster came out in 2017, 'Stand Tall Like a Mountain: Mindfulness & Self-Care for Children and Parents' and 'The Little Book of Self-Care’ came out in 2019. ‘Self-Care for Tough Times’ and her first children’s book ‘This Book Will (Help) Make You Happy’ by Wren & Rook are both hot off the press.
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