When the darkness of negative emotions hangs heavy, there are few things that lift those clouds better than getting out into nature.
It’s no wonder that rates of depression, stress and suicide are increasing in many developed countries. We live busier, more frantic lives in which we take less care of our mental wellbeing. Those with more leisure time only have it because they can’t find enough work to make ends meet, and those with more money feel time-poor.
A ten year study in the US showed that among 35 to 64 year olds suicide rates have risen by on average 28%, and this rate is three times higher in men than in women. Suicide rates among teens and the elderly have flatlined.
Ecotherapists believe that time spent outdoors can be an effective treatment for stress, depression and anxiety, and a University of Essex study found that daily walks outdoors could in some cases be as effective as anti-depressant medication. Time outdoors can even improve innovative, problem-solving thinking.
For me, time in nature has been an important therapy for dealing with some of these emotions. Whether it’s grief, loss, depression or stress, creating time and space in a natural setting
When the darkness of negative emotions hangs heavy, there are few things that lift those clouds better than getting out into nature. Very often I like nothing more than to rise early and walk out into the small woodland and fields behind my cottage in the English countryside. Small winter flocks of chickadees (blue tits, great tits) move through the trees searching for food. Flocks of redwings and fieldfares (thrushes) trill and chack as they fly overhead. My boots sink into the wet mud and as a metal gate slams shut behind me the steel grey woodpigeons show flashes of green and purple collars as they scatter from the bushes and the bare fields. They slow their flights in crescendos and crashing, looping waves as they come to land in trees on the far side of the field. As I watch all this, my mind slows down and begins to chew the cud of a stressful day at work or some worry that has been tapping away at my mind like an insistent woodpecker.
But you don’t have to head to the wilderness to find this kind of connection though. There’s wildlife in the hearts of all of our towns and cities. From the table I’m writing at I am also looking out of the apartment window watching a black redstart, a small bird, work its way along the rooftops. It is black, with white flashes on the head giving it a kind of zorro mask outline. Its blood-coloured tail means that when it flits from rooftop to rooftop it leaves a kind of blur of red smoke in the air behind it. Watching this bird gives me a sense of calm and of perspective. Nature is reliable: even if you can’t predict exactly what you’ll see or hear, you’ll find something if you go looking for it. This kind of dependability is comforting, particularly if so much else in life feels uncertain.
There’s no need to be an expert naturalist to enjoy time outdoors. Going to the park, noticing the trees, pausing to welcome in some of the natural sounds around you, can shift your mindset. Many of these techniques are borrowed from meditation techniques, but they work just as well as you walk or sit in a green space.
When we acknowledge the natural world around us we are creating a connection with something greater and older than ourselves. And we do the same when we burrow down within our range of vision and observe the tiny – flowers between the sidewalk cracks, insects in the soil. Changing our sense of scale in this way can also alter our perception of other parts of our lives. For many dealing with these issues time alone in nature removes the pressure of other people’s judgment by reminding them that they are not the center of the universe.
This also helps us to alter our rhythm and pace; nature works more slowly than us, and observing creatures around us forces us to slow down. Whether consciously or unconsciously, this can create mental space and time to deal with our feelings. It gives time for solitude, peace and reflection.
Spending time in nature is no silver bullet and for me it has never, alone, been the key to healing negative emotions. But it has been an important part of the remedy. This, for me, is simply another important argument for preserving and restoring green spaces, particularly in and near our towns and cities.
Photo: Jean-Daniel Echenard/Flickr