Managing mental health with nature

Paul Brook, Wildlife and wellbeing writer

Published in JHH16.1 – Nature connections

Before I started writing about it, nature was already a passion for me – I’ve loved animals and particularly birds since a young age. But a few years ago I’d reached a point in my life where I wasn’t finding time to do the things I used to enjoy, and had pretty much forgotten what those things were. An ongoing battle with stress in and out of work gave depression the chance to creep into my life, bringing anxiety with it. I discovered the benefits of nature for health and then started writing about it.

How nature benefits my mental health

When we’re worn down by stress, anxiety and depression, it’s easy to forget the things we used to enjoy doing – or how to enjoy doing anything for that matter.

A few years ago, when I was frazzled and going through an episode of depression, my counsellor encouraged me to find time to do something I enjoyed. I’d always enjoyed bird – watching and walking, and tried to get out more and rediscover the pleasure of my abandoned hobbies.

While nature alone does not cure depression, anxiety or any other mental health problem, it is one part of a toolkit of coping strategies that can help us to manage our well-being.

My own personal mental health battles are with depression and anxiety, and I find that nature does help me in a number of ways.

A positive focus and distraction

Absorbing ourselves in nature can turn a walk – or even just a nice sit down in a park or garden – into a mindful experience that focuses us on the present and takes us away from the churning thoughts that tumble round our heads and the anxiety that chews at our tummies.

Hear the breeze rustling the leaves in the treetops; listen to the birds singing; watch butterflies and bees flitting among your garden flowers… I find that even a few moments being completely distracted by wildlife usually has a calming effect on me and lifts my mood.

As well as the wildlife, experiencing different places – or just retreating to a favourite wild place – can be very therapeutic. I find being in woodland or by water especially soothing

Being outdoors has other health benefits too – fresh air, sunlight and exercise are good for our physical health as well as our mental well-being.

Discovery, excitement and adventure

One thing I love about nature is that there is always something new to discover – new species to see, new places to visit, new behaviour to observe. I’ll never forget the wonder of watching badgers in a woodland clearing after years of waiting for even a passing glance of one. If I’m planning a birding trip, there’s that sense of anticipation and excitement at what I might see, and the thrill of seeing a rare bird for the first time.

But a new experience doesn’t have to mean a new species – it can mean finding something unexpected in a familiar place. While off work with depression, I took a short walk from home, and found yellow wagtails – glorious, sunny yellow birds – bobbing about in a field where I’d never seen them before.

One of my nature highlights of last year was seeing my first wild snakes. I’d taken an hour or so to escape to Skipwith Common, a heathland nature reserve, while my son was at a party nearby. The common is known for its adders in the summer months, but I’ve never managed to see one there – although the odd lizard is always a treat.

I was thinking to myself that I should go for a walk sometime at another local reserve where snakes could be seen, when I was halted in my tracks by an incredible sight – two snakes, basking in the spring sunshine in a gap in an old brick wall. They turned out to be grass snakes, and were so close up and easy to watch that I could take a decent photo with my mobile.

My son is really keen on snakes, so when I picked him up, I told him about my discovery, and we ended up going back with a couple of his friends. Incredibly, the snakes were still exactly where I’d left them. This kind of memory is exactly why nature is the gift that never stops giving.

Nature is everywhere

It’s an unfortunate truth of depression that the things that are best for us are often the hardest things to do. Even for someone like me, who loves being outdoors, the draining, soul-destroying experience of depression can completely kill off all energy or enthusiasm, making the prospect of going out for a walk feel like the last thing I want to do.

At those times, if we just can’t face going out, we can still enjoy nature without venturing out. If you can see the sky or a tree, lawn or plant from where you’re sitting, you can still look out for wildlife. It’s amazing how many different species you can see in a fairly short space of time.

I feed the birds in my garden and can lose myself watching them – the goldfinches jostling for position on a feeder, the blackbirds fending off rivals, the wren that always follows exactly the same route into our garden and disappears for a moment in a bush…

Accept that it’s not going to work every time

Sometimes nature will help you feel better, even if only for a short time. Other times, it will not – but that doesn’t mean we should give up.

There are occasions where my mood has been too dark – my thoughts too destructive and intrusive – for me to be able to get lost in the sights and sounds around me. There have been other times where I’ve felt crushing disappointment because I’ve ‘failed’ to see what I went out to look for (I’m trying to learn to manage my own expectations), or I’ve felt defeated and demoralised by the weather spoiling a day out.

One such day that stands out in my mind is when I took a day off work to go to Flamborough Head, one of my favourite places on the Yorkshire coast, on a mission to see some particular birds. I can’t remember what birds they were, but I can remember that I didn’t see them, and that I couldn’t even enjoy the beautiful scenery because of thick fog. I genuinely considered giving up on bird – watching that day – not only had I not seen what I’d wanted to see, the weather was manky, there was barely a bird of any kind to be found all day, and I was sick of dragging my telescope and rucksack around.

The bird that saved the day was an unlikely one. At the point of my greatest frustration, the movement of a small bird in the hedge up ahead caught my eye. I followed it, hoping it would reveal its identity, and it did. It was a male for some reason that splash of colour and the chaffinch’s perky character were enough to bring me back out of my brain fog. The actual fog lifted soon after that too, and I remember sitting on a bench, and discovering that a cup of tea tastes even better by the sea.

Turning to nature

Now, if I feel stressed or anxious, or if I can feel my mood darkening – even if I just feel stuck in a rut – I make time to get outdoors, and it helps to distract me and give me something positive to do. I find it relaxing but also exciting, because the wonder of birding is that you never know what you will see next. That sense of anticipation – something to look forward to and get excited about – is a feeling that can get lost in the spirit-crushing mire of depression.

Life is busy, and it’s not always easy to find time, but I’ve learned to look out for opportunities here and there – lunchtimes, those spare hours in between dropping off and picking up children at parties, maybe an hour at the start or end of a day… Part of finding this precious time is recognising the good it does me, and realising that this is part of helping me to manage my depression and anxiety. Self-care should not be optional – it’s vital in helping us to recover and stay well.

Five tips for how to enjoy nature if you’re experiencing depression:

  • A good birding trip – or any kind of nature-related outing – is a great way to lift your mood, but it can also be too demanding if you’re not feeling well, so don’t try to do too much. I had a heavy cold while off work with depression, but one day heard that common gulls (a bird I’d always struggled to see) could easily be seen at a site across town. I dragged myself out, got blown about by a strong, cold wind, joylessly saw the common gulls and wheezed all the way home, feeling thoroughly miserable. It really wasn’t worth it.
  • Try to keep your trips short until you feel stronger and more able to try travelling further. I enjoyed some very satisfying and rewarding local birding, and my slower pace actually helped me to see more on familiar patches, such as the discovery of yellow wagtails in a field close to home and some lovely views of yellowhammers and golden plovers.
  • While you’re restricted in what you can manage, enjoy what you can see and hear, rather than worrying about what you might be missing or can’t identify – there’s no point adding to your stress levels. You can learn songs, behaviour and subtleties of plumage that you might never have noticed before if you hadn’t stopped and savoured the moment. Taking time to appreciate the colours of a male chaffinch or the song of a dunnock while you’re walking down the road can be as rewarding as something harder earned.
  • Do some of your nature-watching alone and some with other people whose company you enjoy. Complete solitude isn’t always good for you if you’re suffering from depression. A friend took me out birding to one of our favourite local wetland reserves one weekend and an obliging water rail strolled out close to the hide where we were sitting – literally seconds after I’d mentioned that I’d never seen one – before sloping off into the reeds again. If I’d stayed at home and not made the effort to go out, I wouldn’t have this happy memory to recall.
  • Depression doesn’t have to stop you getting out and about. The combination of exercise, fresh air, a change of scenery and doing something you enjoy means birding can be very beneficial. Keep it simple, do what you feel able to do, and quit while you’re ahead.

The Earth Says(after Hokasai Says)

Larry Butler

The earth says keep still stay put & listen to the roar of silence hold on & root deep for treasure feel the sap rising through your bones wait & see what happens

The river says keep flowing into the lochs swirling & swelling & swishing keep floating down down & down falling & carving the mountains down to the beautiful sea

The trees say keep rooting rooting & rising into sky – spread out your arms to embrace everything breathe deep deeper with each falling leaf gather fruit & nuts for winter

The sky says keep looking sniff the air & notice the small changes moment by moment breath by breath cloud by cloud watching your thoughts float by

The birds say keep singing sing from your heart fly from branch to branch stay curious stay light start fresh each year with a new nest then be patient & sit on your eggs till they hatch

The sun says keep smiling smile at your reflection on still water from dawn to dusk go outside out to play with light & shadow in the day long dazzle leaping through thin air

The compost heap says keep rotting decomposing turning burning digest everything that comes your way keep returning to the earth & the earth returns tenfold to you

The earth says keep still stay put wait & see what happens next

Larry Butler was born in Illinois, grew up in northern California, and has lived in Glasgow since 1981, where he teaches Tai-Chi movement and leads improvisation workshops. He co-founded the Poetry Healing Project out of which he founded and developed Survivors’ Poetry Scotland and Lapidus.