Immersing yourself in nature provides a great boost to your mental health and wellbeing. And the natural world presents an ideal environment to practise mindfulness and help you deal with the stress and anxiety of everyday living.
This week we explain what mindfulness is and why getting outside is so good for you. We suggest five ways you can use nature to calm your thoughts, experience the healing potential of the outdoors, and give yourself some headspace.
What is mindfulness?
“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.”
Dr Amit Ray, Author of ‘Mindfulness – Living in the moment, living in the breath’.
Mindfulness is a type of meditation that helps you to fully focus on what you’re sensing and feeling in that exact moment. It’s about having moment-by-moment awareness. Noticing our thoughts, what we’re feeling, the sensations we’re experiencing in our body and the environment that surrounds us.
And all of this is done in a kind and nurturing way, so we’re not overwhelmed or overly reactive to what is happening around us. Instead, mindfulness provides a non-judgemental way of processing our thoughts and feelings, accepting them, and believing there’s no right or wrong way to think or feel in a given moment.
How does mindfulness help?
When we worry or feel anxious, we’re often preoccupied with things that have happened in the past. Or we’re worrying about what’s going to happen in the future (see our blog post: ‘Worry will not influence outcome’). These thoughts can feel overwhelming.
Mindfulness is the technique of learning to live in the present and creating a more spacious way of being in the world. One that is calmer and happier. It helps you to better manage your thoughts and feelings. It helps you to live with more appreciation and less anxiety. And it helps you to put some psychological distance between what you are feeling and how you respond.
Why nature is good for your mental health
“We have forgotten what rocks, plants, and animals still know. We have forgotten how to be – to be still, to be ourselves, to be where life is: Here and Now.”
Eckhart Tolle, Author of ‘The Power of Now’ and ‘Stillness Speaks’
We know that mindfulness is good for mental health. But extensive research also shows that when we spend time in nature it reduces our negative behaviours and mood states. And increases positive ones.
Research in the growing scientific field ‘ecotherapy’₁ highlights a strong connection between the time we spend in nature and reduced levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. So, it’s not surprising that according to The Countryside Charity, a growing number of health professionals and academics are advocating ‘green therapy’ – immersing yourself in nature to benefit your mental health.
How can I be mindful in nature?
Spending time outdoors and practising mindfulness are both great ways to help your mental wellbeing. And combining these two elements can be particularly effective. So, here are five tips to get you started:
Tip 1: Breathe.
Find somewhere quiet outside to sit or walk. Then take a moment to acknowledge the trees around you, and the oxygen they supply us with. As you breathe out, think about how you are returning this gift to nature. Breathe mindfully, notice how you feel the air coming in and out of your body. If your mind wanders, gently focus it back on your breathing and the intrinsic connection you are having with nature.
Tip 2: Look around you.
In order to see mindfully, you need to look around and notice the details. Rather than mentally labelling things like a bird, a tree, a flower, instead notice the colours, patterns and textures. Pay attention to how things move, the swaying of the branches, the rippling of water. Try to imagine you’re seeing these things for the first time. If you get distracted concentrate on a particular colour or pattern to refocus your mind.
Tip 3: Listen to the sounds.
Close your eyes and listen. What can you hear? Focus on the sounds, the birds chirping, the leaves rustling in the trees, a dog barking. How many different types of birdsong can you hear? Are the notes high pitched or low? How do the sounds make you feel? By doing this you’ll start to develop a deeper picture of what’s around you, beyond simply what you can see.
Tip 4: Find your space.
Where you go doesn’t really matter. But focus on visiting places and scenery you enjoy the most. It could be your garden or local park, going for a hike in the countryside or visiting your favourite beach. And you don’t have to go there alone. A large UK study₂ in 2014 found that group nature walks were just as effective as solo treks in helping people cope with stress and improving overall mental outlook.
Tip 5: Make nature part of your everyday.
To boost your mental and physical wellbeing, include spending time in nature as part of your daily routine. And if you’re not able to get outside, try bringing the outdoors in. According to a report₃ published in 2017, listening to nature sounds can have a similar effect on the brain to being outside, and reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. And it seems even looking at pictures of natural scenes and favourite places can help.
Experiencing nature presents the ideal opportunity to practise mindfulness and give yourself some headspace. And we hope our tips have helped. But if you would like more guidance, we also offer mindfulness taster sessions for the workplace, as well as counselling therapies that can help with stress and anxiety. Simply get in touch or call us on 0292 010 3173 to find out more.
- In a 2015 study by Stanford University, USA, researchers compared the brain activity of healthy people after they walked for 90 minutes in either a natural setting or an urban one. They found those who did a nature walk had lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region responsible for repetitive thoughts that focus on negative emotions.
- Group nature walks are linked with significantly lower depression, less perceived stress and enhanced mental health and well-being, according to a 2014 study conducted by the University of Michigan, with partners from De Montfort University, James Hutton Institute, and Edge Hill University in the United Kingdom.
- In a report published in 2017, by Scientific Reports, researchers measured brain activity in people as they listened to sounds recorded from either natural or artificial environments. Natural sounds caused listeners’ brains to show an outward-directed focus of attention, a process that occurs during wakeful rest periods like daydreaming. However, the artificial sounds created an inward-directed focus, which occurs during states of anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression.