If you’ve been around here for any amount of time, you’ll most likely have heard us talk about the incredible mental health benefits that developing a connection with nature can give. But what does developing a connection with nature mean? Sounds a bit daunting if you’re not really sure…and also, how does it help your mental health? Matt Doyle hones down on a number of ways you can create a mindfulness practise in nature to help improve your mood and your mental health.
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It’s really clear to me, especially as we come through Covid-19, that more and more people have been choosing to get outside into nature. This is brilliant, even if the reason it has happened is because gyms have been closed and (like us) you feel like you’ll lose your mind if you don’t get outside! Hiking, walking, cycling etc. are also relatively low-cost activities, so that has absolutely played a part there too! We’ve been observing the amount of times that people have said that when they’ve spent time out on their walk, that they feel calmer afterwards, sometimes feeling like they are ‘a new person’. Finding these benefits isn’t just a one-off thing – and it happens to too many people to just be a fluke. The thing is, once you find just how effective spending time in nature can be to help your mental health (not to mention your physical health too) developing that further can become a part of your self care ritual, and this can absolutely look like wild, rugged, mountain journeys, but it can also look like spending time walking in your local park or gardening – there is no right or wrong. It is about finding what works for you – the key to anything sustainable.
It has been significantly proven that spending time in nature can benefit your mental wellness for conditions such as depression and anxiety and some of the benefits can include improved mood, reduced stress, helps you feel more relaxed and improved confidence, to name a few. There is also a lot of interesting research into ecotherapy (a treatment involving activities in nature) and how this can help with depression and it is thought that this could be due to combining physical activity with being in nature. Natural light can also be helpful if you experienceSeasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), even if the day is overcast or ‘less than perfect’.
This is all fantastic, but what does developing a connection with nature actually mean? Quite simply put, it means spending time in nature, taking it in, being mindful and being present. So how do you do that?
For me, it’s about deciding to consciously spend time in nature, or green spaces rather than just going outside for the sake of it. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to be said for getting outside and exercising as a ‘better than nothing’ approach, even if it is just ten minutes when you feel like you don’t have time or you’ve had a really harsh day, but really deciding to connect, to observe and be present is a skill that can be developed with massive reward.
The thing is, you can feel like you’re not ‘doing it right’ or that it has to look a certain way, but in all honesty, this is untrue. Like with everything, you need to find your own groove. I think for us, one of the main deciders to consciously move towards trying to connect mindfully was that when going through a really rough patch where my anxiety was rolling on high, I felt desperate, like I’d give anything a try. I literally lost the need for it to be this perfect solution, I was willing to try anything to get out of my own head for a while. It wasn’t anything special in the way that I acted, nor was it this thing where it needed to look a certain way, I just started to get out into nature with the intention of letting it help me and just being there in the present moment, without any expectations. It started to pay off.
I’ve come to realize that connecting with nature for therapeutic result is simply another form of mindfulness meditation. If you’re new to this concept,mindfulness refers to how present and engaged you are with whatever you’re doing, free from distraction or judgment, and aware of our thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them. When you have anxious or depressive thoughts, you are often getting caught in the past or future, rarely the present – often living out scenarios of what might happen, and these can sometimes be all consuming. Mindfulness allows us to look at the moment we are in right there and then. So, with how this connects to the gentle flow of nature, you can really begin to see how mindfulness and nature connection are incredible facets of the same thing. When we teach our mind to be more present, we’re telling ourselves that it is safe to spend time in the present, not reacting to thoughts or feelings in that given moment and taking time to process– especially when life throws you challenging situations, anywhere on the spectrum. I think a phrase that explains this really well is when people say they’re going out to take a walk and clear their head, quite literally.
So, how can you develop this practically? Here are my four top, practical tips for developing a mindfulness outdoors experience to help your mood, your mental health, or even to just feel more connected.
Introduce a Pattern Interrupt
This might sound a little overwhelming to begin with but developing signals can be really useful in order to help you start to really connect when you’re outside and to use your time in nature as a therapeutic activity. The first thing that I always do when I’m heading out for a mindfulness walk or hike is to set my intention. This can be as simple as ‘I am connecting today and leaving whatever is in my head at the door’. This can also be as simple as saying the word ‘stop’ or ‘look’ to encourage you to look and get out of your thinking mind and into your body. You will not get this practice perfect, especially not at the start and it can be really easy to start letting those thoughts that pop up wonder through and take over, but it’s about seeing them and noticing that and then returning to your practice.
Awareness of Rhythm
Another tip that can be really useful and falls into some interesting techniques from mindfulness meditation practice is counting. You might find it useful to really center your focus on your breathing – observing mindfully your breaths in and out. Saying ‘in’ and ‘out’ can be very helpful with this. You might choose to count 1,2,1,2 to the sound of your feet hitting the ground. You might also choose to just listen to the rhythmic sounds of your feet as they hit the ground and the sound they make as they touch the texture of the earth underneath them. This can really help you to become present to what is around you. If you’re not hiking, go with what works for your sport – my friend who is really into SUP once told me that she finds the sound of her paddles really meditative because of the repetitive pattern of movement and sound and helps her to become really mindful of the experience.
Use Your Senses
How does the air smell? How do the trees or the rocks feel? How does the sun/rain/wind feel? What can you hear? What can you see? Using your senses can be absolutely pivotal to creating a calm space for yourself to get swept along with the mindfulness of the moment. Generally, when we’re in nature being mindful, we realize just how few times in a day we consciously carve out to just look, be and observe what is going on. Some of my most favorite moments in life have been spent really in the moment observing the world that I’m experiencing around me – in fact I think it is what really got me into photography in the first place. I’ve found myself full of intense, complex emotions at times when I really connect like this, and it can feel truly beautiful and profound – I’ve had some of my most creative ideas by removing some of the background noise of day to day life and just observing the simple pleasures of existence that we often forget are even there.
Keep A Diary
Not sure it’s working? Keep note (even if just in your phone) of the times you got out to help you see what is happening. Take note of how you felt before hand – this can just be one-word responses ‘angry’ ‘disappointed’ ‘low’ etc. and then write how you felt afterwards. See how this has improved, what you may have learned, any solutions that may have popped into your head etc. This can be really helpful in developing the ‘proof’ that you need to show yourself that this is actually having a benefit for you. It is really important to also remember that it won’t always have a profound effect, and I’ve actually found that my first few experiences or the first time I’ve been in big nature after a while of not being have been my most cathartic, I have also found this to be true for others. Now, it feels more like maintenance for me (although, it still has the same incredible benefits). Sometimes, I also don’t feel any different, but I have that bank of knowledge to know that it truly does affect my mood. So be gentle.
I’d love to know how you get on with developing mindfulness to help you in nature, so let me know in the comments how you are getting on and what you’re finding works for you. It is important to remember what works for you might not work for your partner or friend and vice versa – we are as individual as every flower, mountain, tree or leaf that you’ll see whilst you’re mindfully observing, and that is a beautiful fact – there is space for all of us to grow, thrive and be gentle with ourselves on this planet.