The benefits of environment & nature on our wellbeing

Take a moment to picture yourself walking through a forest, hearing the sounds of the birds singing,
the smell of the fresh air, all of your senses are heightened. Now imagine yourself sitting in a hot
room, packed full of people, there is paperwork everywhere, the room is filled with disorganised chaos.
Where would you prefer to be? I think we all know which one you would pick.
Why is this significant?

We know that our environment has an impact on our emotional and physical wellbeing. Being in a
stressful environment can cause us to feel anxious or sad. Not only this, but it also physically affects
us by elevating heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension and suppressing the immune system.
I was made aware of the significant impact environment can make in the healing process in my first
role working for Teenage Cancer Trust, in the Bristol Royal Infirmary Hospital. Teenage Cancer Trust
recognised how young people experiencing cancer felt misplaced, either being placed on paediatric
wards or wards for elderly patients. Their mission was to build specialist units in hospitals across the
country, dynamically changing the space in which young people with cancer lived in. This they
believed had a significant impact on the healing process of that individual. I have carried this with me
to this day and again was reminded how crucial environment is during lockdown. Going out for walks
every day and experiencing nature was my sanctuary. I am not alone I am amongst many others who
share this passion and love of nature. This year Mental Health Foundation set the theme for Mental
Health Awareness week on the 10-16th May as nature.

The Nature and Mental Health report published by Mind in 2018, shows the impact of nature on our
wellbeing, including improving mood, confidence and self-esteem, helping us to become more active
and providing peer support to name a few (Mind). We are fortunate to be surrounded by it: “from
forests, oceans and rivers, to parks and gardens, to window boxes or even house plants, we can find
nature wherever we are” Mental Health Foundation. We are now integrating how we use nature to
support wellbeing through ‘Ecotherapy’. The fundamentals of Ecotherapy are being led by trained
professionals in a green environment, where you are able to focus on doing the activity in relation to
exploring or appreciating the natural world, it can also involve spending time with other people (Mind).
When we are struggling with our mental health, we can feel a loss of identity. This transition to feeling
like we are not ourselves may be around not able to do the things we were once able to do. This can
lead us to feel powerless, feel a lost sense of control and can make the healing process more
challenging. I really believe to rebuild our mental health, taking part in community projects, being part
of something amongst others and learning a new skill, combine with being in nature – and there’s
Ecotherapy for you.

So now that we recognise the positive impact of nature on our wellbeing, how can we practise it?
In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), when working on a behavioural intervention around changing
mood, the first step is to identify your values. By exploring your values, it can address whether it feels
important for you to work on. For example even though nature is important to improving wellbeing, it
doesn’t necessarily mean it is within your value set. It may be important to sit down first and identify
what things are important to you and bring you more joy. The next stage is then to look at your
current weekly planner, i.e how often are you currently doing the activity, to work out planning it into
your week. We would always try and work in small activities, to help build motivation as this is a way
of sustaining more positive behaviours. So rather than saying you are going to go on five 1 hour nature
walks a week, you may try doing one or two 10-20 minute walks a week and build it up from there.
Another thing I love about nature is it helps me to feel grateful. Studies have proven that gratitude
improves psychological and physical health, as well as improving sleep, self-esteem and our resilience
(Psychology Today). Gratitude can be practiced by anything that helps us to feel appreciation for what
we can see or do. Nature helps me to feel part of something far greater than myself. There are many
ways you can practice feelings of gratitude towards nature. Sky gazing can be an easy way to access
this, just by taking a few moments to look up at the sky.

Nature is also a great way in which we can explore Mindfulness. So often with our busy and hectic lives
we are focusing on the past or future. We rarely have opportunities to focus on the here and now, to
really be in the moment. Nature can be a great avenue to start exploring mindfulness, try by going on
a nature walk. As you are walking, focus your attentions on your surroundings, hearing the sounds of
birds singing, noticing the sensations of walking; try to slow down, to experience the moment-to-
moment awareness of your surroundings. Often when first practising this, we can notice thoughts
creeping in, of our to do lists, or work stresses and that is okay.

Remember one step at a time, the first step is making time to be in nature if it feels important to you.
The rest will fall into place. Once we start to bring awareness to being present in nature, over time you
will gradually notice this becomes easier to do, until one point it may even become habit.

So, block out a time in the next few days and go explore!

Mental Health Foundation
Psychology Today

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