I received an email this morning entitled “Wellbeing Walks through the Forest.” It read “spending time amongst the trees and really noticing your surroundings is scientifically proven to boost our mental and physical health.” I am not sure how this could be measured ‘scientifically’ but I can offer anecdotal evidence that it really does seem to work.
Back in December last year, I became unexpectedly and seriously unwell. It was short, sharp and painful and I am well one the road to recovery now, thank you! However, the experience really made me look more closely at how I was treating my own physical and mental health. It seems ironic given what I do for a living, but I was completely neglecting my own mental wellbeing and physical health. There was just no ‘me time’ in amongst the appointments with clients, studying, worrying about unwell parents and the general crowd management of bringing up three children. My working day began at 9am and ended when the children got in from school. I took no exercise other than the school run. I just didn’t have time. My husband had bought a new watch that counted his footsteps and calories burned and would try to get me to join him on his lunchtime walks, but I was “too busy.”
In hospital in December, having done a bit of research into the condition I was diagnosed with, I learnt that lack of exercise is known not only to trigger it but to make it worse. I vowed that once I had recovered I would do something about it.
I am no gym bunny and you are never going to find me pounding along the seafront in my lycra. But I do like to walk and so I decided that I would build in a morning walk to my daily routine. My first appointment is now not until 10am allowing me an hour after I drop my daughter off at school to get those steps in. If I don’t get out first thing and do it, I know myself well enough to realise it isn’t going to happen at all. Obviously, this is not a luxury that everybody can enjoy, but with more if us working at home each day, it might just be more possible.
Having dropped my daughter to school, my walk takes me first through the local park. I make my way along the path that skirts the park itself. Right on the corner of the park is a huge, spreading Oak tree. It is my favourite tree in the whole park. Possibly anywhere. It is immense, with branches that seem to twist upwards like knotted arms. Today those arms reach into a dense canopy of greenness, but it looks just as majestic when stripped bare. I’d guess it must be around 300 years old. It has a rope tied from one of its branches and the children love to swing from it after school. Yesterday, my daughter was throwing her shoes up into the branches to try to dislodge the rope to they could play: not a great idea!
Every morning, there is a large group of dog walkers standing about in groups of two or three chatting about their particular pooches endearing (or possibly otherwise) habits. Meanwhile, the dogs themselves run and play fight together like a large, feral pack. As I look on, I like to imagine the dog I intend to get for our family trotting beside me. I could almost hear his (or her) little nails clipping along the path… I don’t think I’ll be joining the pack when the day comes, but I like to look on as I walk past.
Next, the path leads me past the pond on my right and towards the small children’s playground, before turning into the Rose Garden. This morning, as I strolled past the play area, I remembered the seemingly endless days I spent in there with my own children when they were very small. Anxiously and watchfully following them around as they explored every part of the equipment. Those chilly November days spent pushing one or other of them on the swings as they asked for more seemed never ending at times. But even as my arms ached and my mind froze with the cold monotony of the park, I knew the days would come to an end and I should try to savour every moment. Not always easy with numb hands…
Then I am taken into the Rose Garden. It is Spring, and the air is full of birdsong. I am not a birdwatcher by any means, but this morning I identified the songs of a wren, a robin and a blackbird. The robin I heard this morning sounded just like tinkling glass. There is usually a gardener or two bent over their work, and I was put in mind of the Secret Garden today, a book I am currently reading to my daughter at bedtime. The copy I have was bought for me by grandmother and she would read it to me as I sat behind her in her armchair combing her hair. I thought about how lovely it is that I am now reading it to the great-granddaughter she never quite met.
Part of the park has been left to turn to meadow and there were cabbage whites fluttering above the long grasses, buttercups and daisies as I made my way out of the park and onto Chalkwell Avenue. This part of the walk takes me downhill towards the beach. It is lined with beautiful houses and one in particular has a turreted tower and I imagine what it would be like to live there: it is definitely my favourite fantasy home…As I walked along today it struck me that this is the first time this year that I have actually felt warm and it is almost June! I really enjoyed the sensation of the hot sun on my face and thought briefly about suncream…
Then on to the beach. Today the tide was out and there was a huge, hulking container ship making its way slowly along the horizon. It seems that no matter what the weather is doing elsewhere, there is always a breeze coming in from the sea. This morning it was gentle and refreshing. Other days it is wild and full of sand, whipping up the waves into white peaks. I walked past a yoga class taking place on the beach and thought about how I might make enquiries about how to join. I gave up yoga a while ago as my counselling picked up and I became “too busy.” Then again, do I really want to inflict the site of me doing the Downward Dog on the public at large?
Onwards to the final part of my walk, up the hill past the station back home. The council grass-cutters were busy on the slope where the children love to toboggan down in what little snow we might be blessed with in the winter. Walking along this morning, it seemed incredible to remember how just a few weeks ago the kids were whizzing down the hill on make-shift sledges. It was impossibly cold, and the snow had turned into a muddy grey slush. The wind was piercingly intense and I longed to be able to go back indoors. I hoped that the grass would not be given too much of a haircut today: leaving it meadow-like is so important for the insect life.
So, in summary, I have no idea whether it is scientifically proven or not that walking in nature is good for your mental health. I may not live in the ‘countryside’ as such, but there is certainly a lot of ‘nature’ to see on my daily ramble. My mind escapes from that seemingly relentless list of jobs that need to be done that day, and I can let it wander from the past to the future and back to the present again. I know that I would really miss it if I had to stop. I have lost weight and feel healthier; I have slowed down and I feel happier. What’s more, I have usually clocked up 6000 steps by the time I get in!
A personal and intimate blog written by our very own Sinead Withers here at Life House Therapy, please reach out to her personally Here.
Take a look at the video produced by The Mental Health Foundation here. Nature may not erase our struggles, it can provide relief, grounding us and giving perspective to whatever may be consuming us.
What is your release?