I am in no way a trained mental health specialist, psychologist or psychiatrist; however, I am a sufferer of extreme anxiety, which also causes depressive episodes and I also have slight SAD (seasonal affective disorder).
The calming effects of nature
Living with anxiety sucks, anyone who has lived with it in the past, or lives with it currently knows that. Online advise always mentions setting a routine, eating healthy and getting regular exercise, but very few sources mention the effects that being in nature can have on you. Well, I’m here to tell you that being out in nature can make a difference, in fact, such a strong difference that your attacks may have a reduced severity when you experience them.
This year in particular I have suffered some extreme attacks that have lasted for over a week in a couple of cases. I go through phases where I don’t sleep for days on end, which starts to have quite an impact on the rest of your everyday life. I have been a sufferer of insomnia since the day I was born, in fact my mum tells me stories of my childhood where no matter what my nanny tried while my mum was at work, I just would not go to sleep. I never had phases where I wouldn’t sleep at all though, I would maybe have very insufficient sleep of 2-4 hours in a night, but never none at all. My recent most severe insomnia attack kept me awake for 9 days straight with maybe an hour of sleep on a couple of the days. During these phases I didn’t feel like going out, I couldn’t eat because I was also suffering from a different syndrome-based condition that it caused, and I was trapped in an endless cycle.
Since that attack, I have tried my hardest to go out every single day, rain or shine, cold, mild, or freezing and blowing a gale. That attack was only maybe a month ago; I have suffered another attack since then, but nowhere near as severe. Walking every single day, being out breathing the fresh air, feeling the breeze on my face, getting some exercise and seeing some wildlife has saved me in ways I can’t understand. Walking in nature is such a simple thing, but it really can change your mindset and mood when you’re having a bad day. There are techniques used to control anxiety known as “grounding techniques” which makes you really concentrate on things activating all of your senses, rather than what’s going on inside. I find going out in nature especially helpful after I’ve had to do something I find stressful because stressful things make me all jittery, shaky and just a little out of sorts for the rest of the day.
I first started using nature as an escape from my anxiety almost four years ago. After I quit uni in December 2016, I went 3 months where I didn’t leave the house at all except for going food shopping once a week because the outside world felt “dangerous”. It was especially “dangerous” for me in areas where there were lots of people around because I sometimes find crowds of people hard to navigate. My boyfriend decided one freezing February morning that enough was enough and we were going exploring, even if it was just for 10 minutes, I was leaving the house. I think the first day I managed a 20-30 minute walk; although it was only 20-30 minutes, it was a life-saving walk, I had finally left my four-walled prison, and I finally had a smile on my face!
Having gone back to a tremendously bad state this year, nature is working wonders; yes, I’m still having trouble sleeping for reasons I don’t know, but I’m getting some sleep. Yes, I still get anxiety, but in recent weeks, the attacks haven’t been all that bad. Yes, the miserable weather is still getting me down because of SAD. But no, I’m not nearly half as bad as I was even a couple months ago. Okay, so I’ve started receiving counselling to really start to dig and get to the bottom of my triggers, troubles and everything else that has been affecting me for years, but the only other things that have changed is a better going to bed and waking up routine and going out in nature EVERY SINGLE DAY!
Nature is essential in my recovery; it helps to bring me back to the present moment when my head spirals out of control. Nature provides sights, sounds, smells, textures to touch, but maybe don’t taste anything unless you know what you’re doing. Using the senses really helps to calm an anxious mind, so why not use nature. Reducing the affects from anxiety can also be done using distractions, so if you love nature, why not use it as a distraction? Why not go and try and find a new bird species to add to the list, or try and identify a new bird call? Maybe you can go and crunch some autumn leaves with your boots in the last of the autumn weather, or go and crunch some icy puddles now that the colder weather is going to start setting in?
Even if you don’t suffer from mental health issues, nature is a great way to get away from life’s problems. Being humans, we’re not supposed to be cooped up in offices behind screens all day long or locked in our houses for the next 6 months while winter rolls around.
I encourage everyone to get out and experience and enjoy nature as much as you possibly can, you never know what you may find, and although you might get cold and a little damp (especially in Britain), what’s the worst that could happen, other than the benefits which are proven such as reduced stress, better sleep, and as important as ever in the current world climate, a stronger immune system.