• Katharine Gardner

My tips for Mental Health Awareness Week 2021

The Mental Health Foundation's Mental Health Awareness week this year from 10th - 16th May 2021 has NATURE as it's theme. They say "nature is an important need for many and vital in keeping us emotionally, psychologically and physically healthy."

I have experienced poor mental health …. low confidence, unhappy, fearing failure, feeling out of control and utterly powerless to make a change, or even see there was an alternative option. It's a tough place to move out of. I won't pretend improving your mental health is an easy or even linear journey. It requires acknowledgment, acceptance, assistance and some determination to bring about change. Taking a walk isn't a magic pill, but it is highly likely to improve your mood, and make the circumstances of your day a little more positive.

To help us look after our mental health, there are lots of things we can do.

Firstly, we could spend some time thinking about our own mental health, and deciding where improvements could be made. Are you stressed? Concerned about your diet? Want to make changes to (or start) your exercise routine? Need more sleep?

To hep organise these things you'd like to improve, you could write a list of goals. Make a note beside each one of an exact target, for example, get one hour more sleep per night, rather than just "more sleep". By making the goals specific your brain can work towards that in a measurable way.

Next, how can we bring nature into our lives, and how can it bring about positive effects?

NATURE HELPS US FEEL GOOD! We’re biologically programmed to respond positively to nature…… green spaces, quiet woodlands, gurgling streams, dramatic sunsets, crashing waves, the sound of birdsong, the scent of flowers, the rustling of leaves, catching sight of a robin, noticing a herd of deer on the edge of a forest, or a seeing cute kitten! Nature helps us to feel relaxed, calm, peaceful, in balance. When you picture your favourite place to walk, it probably makes you feel peaceful, settled and happy.

Photo by Fidel Fernando on Unsplash

Spending time outdoors can boost your vitamin D intake. Being outside in daylight, particularly in the morning, can regulate your circadian rhythm, allowing you to sleep and wake at regular times, minimising the likelihood of suffering with insomnia. And a very obvious advantage to being outdoors is that we are breathing in fresh air, not centrally heated air, which is good for the health of our lungs, skin and bodies generally (always ensuring we have adequate sun protection).

When we feel good, we can look after our physical health, by making good choices. We can choose an appropriate bedtime, a nutritious diet, find time to exercise. We don’t feel the need to rely on unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol, drugs or unhealthy food to gain an unnatural ‘high’, because when we’re relaxed and calm and in a ‘good place’ our brains are already producing the feel-good chemicals dopamine and serotonin, which help us feel positive and happy.

Photo by Joice Kelly on Unsplash

So, if nature helps you to feel more relaxed and happier, how can you bring it into your life? What will bring you enjoyment?

Perhaps you would like to take up a new outdoor sport or hobby …. rambling, tennis or golf? How about taking a walk somewhere new? Somewhere you’ve always wanted to explore. Maybe you could research the history of a local town or beauty spot, then visit it, taking photos to scrapbook? How about trying geo-caching, seeking and hiding treasure?

If you enjoy watching birds in the garden, how about keeping a diary of the different types of birds you see over a one-week period? Building a bird box or bird feeder? Maybe you could get involved in a butterfly count or a bug hunt?

How about drawing or painting something in nature? Walking to a quiet spot with a sketch book, or taking photographs to paint from at home?

Would you like to grow your own vegetables but have no idea where to start….. maybe join a local gardening group or an online forum? How about pick your own fruit then make jam from it? Growing indoor plants?

How about learning more about the natural world? By watching a documentary, visiting a zoo or nature reserve? Sponsoring a wild animal via a charity? Displaying framed pictures or photographs of your favourite nature scenes or wild animals or pets?

The pleasure really can be in the process, not just the end result. If you are absorbed in a creative task such as painting a scene or constructing a bird box, your mind will be fully focused on the task, and not likely to be on any worries or anxieties. This is the essence of mindfulness, allowing thoughts to come and go, acknowledging them, allowing them to fade away, and be dealt with at an appropriate time for you. When your mind is free from worry, it can go off and wander, and perhaps come up with an answer to a problem, or a new perspective to something that’s been troubling you.

Photo by Margaret Jaszowska on Unsplash

This ‘rest and recharge’ mode is incredibly valuable to our mental health and overall wellness. If we are constantly on the go and don’t allow ourselves the opportunity to have regular ‘downtime’ then we are at risk of becoming stressed, and burnt out. Physically, our bodies could be in ‘fight or flight’ mode more often than they actually need to be. When we’re stressed, and our brains perceive danger, this ‘fight or flight’ mode triggers the release of adrenaline and cortisol, to help get us out of ‘danger’. But if we spend too long accidentally on high alert (being stressed, worried, angry) then the levels of cortisol become dangerously high, and because our heart rate and blood pressure are artificially raised, it can cause serious health complications. Our digestion can also be affected, as can our immune system. So, if we can spend more time feeling relaxed, happy, in control and less anxious, the better our body works. Other positive effects of being active and creative outdoors and immersing yourself in nature are a lowered risk of depression, increased confidence and motivation.

We are all different in our likes and preferences, so have a think about what you would enjoy, how you can experience nature in your own way. What will suit your budget, your timescale and above all ….. what’s easy to start off with? Making it easy (and enjoyable) will make it far more likely for you to stick with it, and reap the benefits. Plan the first small thing that you need to prepare, in order to get you moving towards your goal, task or activity. If you’d like to go out rambling but have no boots, where can you buy some? If you would like to paint a woodland scene, do you have the art materials, if not what do you need?

I hope you have fun, and find pleasure in whatever activities you decide to do!

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