What can nature do for your mental health?
The recent pandemic has brought our mental health into focus more sharply than ever before. But if there was ever a positive outcome from Coronavirus, it’s the fact that many of us have noticed the effects of being outside, in our gardens, surrounded by the sight and sounds of nature and wildlife on our mindset. Over the last year, sales of house plants have boomed, many house owners have turned to self-sufficiency by introducing vegetable gardens, and the trend for balcony and patio gardens has flourished. We’re all doing everything we can to surround ourselves with green spaces and fresh air.
That’s why the Mental Health Foundation has chosen to theme this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week around the subject of nature. Their statistics show that:
- Going for a walk was our number one coping strategy during lockdown.
- More than half of UK adults say that being close to nature improved their mental health.
- Four in ten say it made them feel less worried or anxious.
- Almost two thirds of adults say that being close to nature meant they experienced positive emotions.
Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation, Mark Rowlands commented, “It was as if we were re-discovering at our most fragile point our fundamental human need to connect with nature. Nature is so central to our psychological and emotional health, that it’s almost impossible to realise good mental health for all without a greater connection to the natural world.”
Their goal for this week, is to inspire as many people as possible to connect with nature in new ways; noticing the impact this has on their mental health.
Nature and mindfulness
One of the quickest and easiest ways to allow nature to affect your mental state is to stand outside, close your eyes and practice mindfulness for just two minutes, working through your five senses:
- What can you see? Notice just how many colours there are around you, can you spot a butterfly floating past?
- What can you hear? Listen out, can you make out a tuneful rendition from a bird in your garden?
- What can you smell? Perhaps you can sniff a compost heap, or the smell of wet grass after a sunny downpour.
- What can you touch? Feel the texture of the bark of a tree and compare it to the soft petals of a flower, or the fluffy feel of a leaf.
- What can you taste? Stick out your tongue in the rain! Try some wild garlic. Or grow some edible flowers.
The Thriving with Nature Guidebook, which was compiled by the WWF and Mental Health Foundation explains that research is ongoing as to why spending time in nature is so good for our mental health. “The benefits are often related to how our senses connect us to the environment around us, from the shapes in nature we see to the scents that trees give off and the soft fascination that nature can stimulate which helps our minds rest.”
What can you do in your own garden to help your mental health?
Build a log pile
There are two reasons why a log pile is so good for your garden wildlife. The first is shelter. Animals, like hedgehogs in particular, love a log pile for curling up inside during the day. It offers a shady spot when it’s sunny, and a dry, protected place during harsher cold weather. Secondly, it becomes a great habitat for bugs, slugs, beetles and other beasties. Which in turn become good fodder for your hedgehogs. And if there is one wild animal guaranteed to improve your mood, it’s seeing a hedgehog in your garden in the evening. Hedgehogs are Britain’s favourite mammal. They’re cute to watch, if you don’t get too close they will happily munch on some hedgehog or cat food whilst you watch them, and then head off to eat all the slugs which are munching through your new vegetable patch!
Your log pile doesn’t need to be big. You can start small and add to it. Use dead wood and branch cuttings and build it safely to ensure it won’t topple or cave in on itself. You can partially bury some of the logs at the bottom to make it more sturdy and because certain species will enjoy feeding on the decaying wood. And make sure you leave some space between logs which you could add some dead leaves to, providing nooks and crannies for all kinds of creatures.
Start a compost heap
A compost heap not only offers a comfortable habitat for many garden beetles, mammals and slowworms, it also gives you a sense of achievement and pride as it’s the most environmentally friendly way of dealing with your own kitchen scraps. Plus, you reap what you sow, by gaining the benefits of a rich compost for spreading onto next year’s seedlings and cuttings. It’s best to start a compost heap in a shady space, and ensure you compost a mixture of materials including wood chippings, prunings and leaves as well as grass cuttings and kitchen waste. Place it directly on the ground to allow worms to get in. And always be careful when sticking your fork into a compost heap. You might want to check for sleeping hedgehogs, toads or grass snakes first.
Leave your lawn alone
No Mow May is a campaign by PlantLife to encourage us all to leave our lawnmowers in the shed for the month of May. Why? Because this is the perfect month for allowing dandelions, buttercups, daisies and wildflowers to grow, encouraging hundreds of bees to your garden in a single day. Their Botanical Specialist, Dr Trevor Dines says, “Between 1980 and 2013, every square kilometre in the UK lost an average of 11 species of bee and hoverfly, so the dense patchwork of lawns provided by British gardens really can throw our pollinators a lifeline. We just have to let the flowers bloom.”
What can this do for your mental health? Spending just five minutes a day sitting amongst the long grass and listening to the sounds of the bees buzzing or watching the beauty of a butterfly fluttering past is one of the most positivity-inducing practices you can adopt. Keep that shed locked!
Introduce a garden pond or water source
If you can, no matter how small your garden is, it’s a great idea to try and introduce some sort of water source into your garden. This doesn’t have to be a huge wildlife pond. It can be as simple as digging an old washing up bowl into the ground. The benefits of water are vast, for both us and our wildlife. Being close to water is naturally calming for humans and can help with stress relief. Especially running water or a small fountain – the sound of which is fantastic for focusing and relaxing the mind. It’s important to ensure that whatever water source you add to your garden, whether it be a pond, bird bath or upturned dustbin lid, it is safe for wildlife to get into and out of again. Shallow edges help, as does placing a log or stone around the edge for animals to crawl out and onto.
Feed the birds
Britain is a nation of bird feeders. We love to encourage robins, tits, finches and sparrows into our gardens. It’s an incredibly heart-warming and satisfying pastime to sit and watch the birds from a kitchen window or hear their song in your garden. You can encourage them in by providing a water source, growing trees, bushes or hedges where they feel safe and secure and could build a nest, leaving seed heads like sunflowers for them to feed on, or growing natural food sources with berry-rich trees and shrubs and wildflowers, and by providing food. This doesn’t have to be proprietary bird seed, they love apples, unsalted peanuts broken down into small pieces which won’t choke them or their young, sunflower hearts, mild grated cheeses and soaked sultanas.
For more information about Mental Health Awareness Week, visit the Mental Health Foundation here.