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Anna, Author at Freedom of Mind

In this piece, Anna shares the research she has done around the benefits of nature on your mental health.

One of the main reasons I chose the University that I attended was its magnificent grounds. It had lakes, ponds carpeted in lily pads, open fields that stretched for miles and gorgeous woodland. Towards the end of my second year various pressures started to overwhelm me and I began having intense panic attacks. My head would spin, my heart would scream in my chest and I was convinced that something awful was about to happen. All I wanted to do was run away from everyone and work through my feelings in peace. My favourite place to run was into the woods, where the gurgling streams and rustling trees would welcome and soothe me. It was completely instinctive; something in me knew that a natural environment would help me relieve some anxiety.

It’s not just me.  Almost everyone seeks out nature in some form or another. Whether it’s taking your children to the park, hiking, gardening or  just having a screensaver of a mountain range, we seem to have an innate need for nature in our lives and believe that it is somehow ‘good’ for us. Well, it appears that it is. There is evidence to suggest that contact with nature can have wide ranging mental and physical health benefits.  

The evidence is everywhere

In one study, parents of children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) reported that ‘green’ activities like playing football helped their children become more relaxed and more focused. This wasn’t simply the result of doing exercise, though. Children who just sat in a room with natural views were actually calmer than children who played outside in an environment without greenery! (1) Living in areas with more green space may also benefit mental health. A study in the U.S found that where people lived in neighbourhoods with more green space, there were significantly lower reported rates of symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. (2)

Feeling connected to nature

There appears to be a correlation between feeling connected to nature through ‘active nature behaviours’ such as feeding birds or planting flowers, and people’s perceptions of their own health and happiness. This is according to an evaluation by Derby University of the ’30 Days Wild’ campaign created by the Wildlife Trusts.(3) People rated their connection to nature and their health and happiness. The amount of people rating their health as ‘excellent’ increased by 30% during the study and the perceived improved health and happiness continued months after the study ended! Dr Miles Richardson, head of psychology at Derby University even said ‘There is a need to normalise everyday nature as part of a healthy lifestyle.” (4)

Forest bathing

In Japan enjoyment of nature has been turned into a therapy in the form of ‘Shinrin Yoku’, or ‘Forest Bathing’. The therapy is beautifully simple; all a person undergoing ‘forest bathing’ need do is go to a forest and sit or walk at a leisurely pace, and breathe in the woody scents. The physiological and psychological benefits of forest bathing are backed up by a good deal of scientific evidence. For example, research from Chiba University in Japan found that, compared to city environments, forest environments were associated with lower concentrations of cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’), lower blood pressure,  lower pulse rate and lower sympathetic nervous system activity (the system that controls fight or flight responses). (5) Research commissioned by the National Institutes of Health found significant increases in memory span and increases in mood after a nature walk versus an urban walk for subjects with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). The researchers even suggested that interaction with nature could be used to supplement current MDD treatments. (6) Frequent forest bathing may even reduce the risk of psychosocial stress related diseases. (7)

Simply breathing in forest air may help your immune system. Some trees and plants secrete Phytoncide; oils which protect them from insects and bacteria. A study in 2009 by Qing Li, of Nippon Medical School in Tokyo found that after spending time in the forest, participants showed a significant increase in Natural Killer Cell activity (cells linked to a well functioning immune system and to fighting cancer).  He suggested that this increase may be due to Phytoncide emitted from the trees and concludes that forest bathing may aid cancer prevention. (8) Pretty amazing effects from just taking a trip to the forest!

Artwork By Anna

Eco therapy

Eco therapy is a similar therapy, advocated by the charity Mind. As well as walking or cycling, eco therapy can include a range of outdoor activities such as meditation, gardening or working on conservation projects. It is something you can do in a group following a programme, or alone, and there are lots of tips on Mind’s website to get you started! (9) Gardening can help improve self esteem and reduce anxiety and depression symptoms according to some studies. (10) If you don’t or can’t do gardening, keeping indoor plants can help reduce stress and can even help to purify the air! (11)

It’s only natural

It’s hardly surprising that we benefit from spending time in nature. We have inhabited, or at least had close contact with natural environments for most of our time on earth. It’s only fairly recently that people started living in urban, manmade environments with little access to nature, and it may be that nature offers advantages that urban environments cannot. One theory that explains this ‘need’ for nature is Attention Restoration Theory (ART). According to ART the constant, attention grabbing information on computers, phones, signs, etc, plus the stress of traffic and frequent interactions in manmade environments can leave us feeling mentally fatigued.  Conversely, natural environments allow us to pay ‘effortless attention’, and require very little of us, while still being engaging and enjoyable. This allows us to replenish our mental resources and can lower our stress levels. (12) (13)

Natural images and scenes

If you don’t have access to forests or green spaces, don’t worry, you can still gain the benefits of Eco therapy. According to some studies, you can experience mental health benefits simply by looking at images of nature. Viewing these nature focused images can help reduce stress and improve mood. Interestingly, a 2015 study found that the more ‘awe inspiring’ the scene, the more mood was improved (possibly because these pictures are more effective at taking us away from our daily experiences). (14) Some studies have even found that patients recovered more quickly and needed less medication when plants were in their room or they had a ‘natural’ view from a hospital window. (15)

Eco psychology – a blossoming new field of science

The studies I have mentioned here are just the tip of the iceberg. There is research that suggests a link between green spaces and social cohesion (16), better ability to cope with stress (17), increases in energy (18), reduction in aggression (19) – the list is endless. And the best part about this therapy is that it’s non invasive, it’s accessible to most, and it’s completely FREE! So now that summer is here and our green spaces are full of leafy trees and blooming flowers, it’s the perfect time to get out there and treat yourself to some nature!

Is there a particular green activity or place that makes you feel good? We’d love to hear about it. You can comment on our Facebook post, reach us on twitter (@FOMCIC) or write your own blog post!

 

If you have something you want to say about mental health send us a pitch to cai.burton@freedomofmind.org.uk

Keep your pitches to less than 150 words and tell us what content you want to make and why you want to make it. It can be anything, from a poem, to an article, to a video, to a piece of artwork – we’re just after stories to tell. We can keep things anonymous if you’d like and we’ll help you to edit your piece then get it up on the blog.

 

References

  1. Drunk Tank Pink (book by Adam Alter)
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3987044/
  3. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0149777
  4. http://www.bbc.co.uk/earth/story/20160420-how-nature-is-good-for-our-health-and-happiness
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2793346/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3393816/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17055544
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2793341/
  9. https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/nature-and-mental-health/about-ecotherapy-programmes/#what
  10. https://academic.oup.com/jpubhealth/article/38/3/e336/2239844
  11. https://gardencollage.com/heal/mind-spirit/houseplants-improve-mental-health/
  12. Drunk Tank Pink (book by Adam Alter)
  13. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attention_restoration_theory
  14. http://theoaksatsacredrocks.com/blog/2017/02/27/mental-health-benefits-nature-exposure/
  15. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/224/4647/420.long
  16. https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/nature-more-important-for-social-cohesion-than-age-gender-education-and-income-combined-a6748851.html
  17. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0277953610000675
  18. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2924288/
  19. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/00139160121973124

 

In this piece, Anna talks openly about her experience of Anxiety and what people don’t always get about living with it.

One thing I worry about with anxiety (part of an infinite list) is being understood. I can’t speak for everyone with mental health difficulties but I often wonder if other people feel the same way. Do they have the same yearning for everyone to see their point of view, to understand why they do what they do, and to hold judgement until they have explained?

My need to be understood can lead to a conviction that no one will understand and everyone will judge me, which makes me feel that I have to constantly explain myself and apologise.

It’s exhausting.

I wonder if it would be easier if I came with a manual, which explained all my unnecessary, negative thought processes and how they affect my actions, so that everyone I meet could understand. I’ve probably offended quite a few people over the years due to my anxiety and the things it leads me to do, or to not do.

Recently I’ve seen various articles about things that anxious people want their loved ones to know. I want to add my two cents from my personal experience, for those who already know me, and those who I may meet in the future – so here are the seven things I want you to know about my anxiety.

1. If I flake on you, it’s not because I don’t care or I don’t respect you.

One of the main ways I’ve upset people over the years is by cancelling on them. I can understand why; it seems incredibly rude and that I’m wasting their time. The problem is, my anxiety can be unpredictable, so I sometimes feel overwhelmed and startled by my own fear of a plan that I was previously excited for. I do WANT to see you, but I often expect the worst and doubt my ability to cope if something goes wrong.

2. It’s the same with texting.

I can be bad at replying to friends’ texts quickly and I know that this can come across like I don’t want to talk to you. It’s often the opposite. I feel that I need to be interesting and entertaining all the time when I talk to someone. This is exhausting, and means I can spend a lot of time and energy trying to think of ‘good’ responses to what you’re saying. When I’m not feeling so bubbly I can end up putting off texting back, because I don’t want to be boring or a downer. If I don’t reply when we are planning an activity together it’s normally because I am concerned that I don’t know how I’ll feel on the day and don’t want to let you down by agreeing to go and then cancelling.

3. Please don’t stop inviting me to events!

I know I sometimes don’t turn up, but it means so much to be invited. Sometimes I just need to listen to myself and stay home, but when I can come, I will, and still being invited when my anxiety is bad lets me know that I’m still involved and can return when I’m feeling better.

4. If I suddenly go quiet and withdrawn, or irritable and tense it’s because I’m feeling panicky.

It’s common with anxiety and panic issues for people to have particular triggers that can set them off, such as crowded or enclosed spaces, public transport, social situations etc. My main trigger is feeling hungry, and if I feel too low on sugar my anxiety levels can rise quickly, causing me to appear angry or distracted. I am not bored of you or upset, I just need to get some food and calm down. The same goes for many others with anxiety or panic issues; it’s nothing personal.

5. Things that you never normally think about can be a monumental challenge to people with anxiety.

Did you get the bus today? Go to work? Meet up with friends? Do some supermarket shopping? These things can be incredibly daunting when living with severe anxiety and a huge source of worry and embarrassment. I have often decided against opening up about these ‘everyday anxiety challenges’, for fear of others not understanding or laughing at me. This is why I try to encourage people to celebrate any achievement, however minor it may seem and to measure success by their own progress, instead of comparing themselves to others . Remember that you never know what someone is dealing with day to day.

6. Living with anxiety can be EXHAUSTING.

I used to wonder how other people could do a full day at work, go to the gym, go out with friends, cook dinner and even practice their hobby, when I felt like I needed a good sleep after making lunch and going for a walk. I thought about how much of my energy anxiety uses up and realised that it was no wonder I feel so tired. My anxiety is characterized by endless worrying. You name it, I worry about it. It isn’t just worry about important issues or organising my day. It can be about anything, and it’s almost constant. Getting a good quality sleep can also be difficult, when it takes me a long time to  fall asleep, and then stressful dreams and nightmares fill my night. So although it may seem like I’ve had an easy, laid back day, I’ve often given myself a mental workout that leaves me feeling completely drained.

7. Anxiety can change all the time.

Living with anxiety isn’t always about fear and uncontrollable worrying. People often tell me that I don’t seem like I have anxiety at all, as sometimes I’m relaxed and full of confidence (though I do often wear a ‘mask’ of confidence and calm in social situations). In my experience anxiety can change day to day. One day the world is a terrifying, foreboding place and the next it’s friendly and full of opportunity. The strange thing is, I actually feel GUILTY sometimes when this happens, because I feel like I’m a fraud and that I should be panicking or worrying about something, when really I should be enjoying the good days and accepting of my own fluctuations. Luckily for me, the good days are coming more often than the bad, and I’m beginning to understand that it’s ok to be ok. The knowledge that my anxiety can change has also made me realise that it’s possible to make progress towards a calmer, happier mind.

There are many more issues I could cite about anxiety’s effects on behaviour, but these are the seven that I have experienced the most misunderstanding over. These are not intended to be ‘excuses’, but to help people to better understand those in their life who experience anxiety, though of course everyone’s experience is different. You have the right to feel understood and accepted regardless of your mental health difficulties, so if you sometimes feel anxious and are comfortable doing so, try talking to your friends and family about any misunderstandings. If you’re not sure how to begin the conversation, maybe share this list and use it as a starting point.

Is there anything you would add? What do you want people to know about anxiety, or any other mental health problem? Reach us on Twitter at @FOMCIC or on Facebook, or even write your own blog post. We’d love to hear from you!

If you have something you want to say about mental health send us a pitch to cai.burton@freedomofmind.org.uk

Keep your pitches to less than 150 words and tell us what content you want to make and why you want to make it. It can be anything, from a poem, to an article, to a video, to a piece of artwork – we’re just after stories to tell. We can keep things anonymous if you’d like and we’ll help you to edit your piece then get it up on the blog.

We are so excited that Bristol is going to be hosting Peerfest this year. We wanted to talk a bit about what that means…

Conversation. It’s the first of Freedom of Mind’s three main aims,  (conversation, education and change) for a good reason. Talking about issues and problems that we are experiencing is an important step in our journey towards better mental health. If we bottle up our problems we can often lose out on valuable support and end up feeling frustrated and isolated.

Read more

One of our writers, Anna, has created a list with her top strategies for getting through a panic attack.

So you’re having a panic attack.

They’re not fun, I know. But you will get through this, I promise.

Read more


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