Do you need a breather? Take time to go offline and connect with nature this week. Your mental health will feel better for it

Over the last year, many of us have come to rely on our gardens and local green spaces more than ever. After periods of social restrictions, we’ve rediscovered the importance of connecting with nature for our mental wellbeing. And this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (10 May - 16 May) is calling on us to celebrate that.

Nature has long been recognised as having a positive impact on our wellbeing. Whether it’s getting outside for a walk or run, gardening and growing fruit and veg, or spending time with animals, it’s proven to alleviate many issues, including stress, anxiety, anger, as well as boosting self-esteem.

From walk and talk phone calls with colleagues and alfresco lunch breaks to bringing the outside indoors through plants and flowers, or meditation sessions set to the backdrop of birdsong, there are so many ways you can harness the power of the natural world for your mental health.

Here, we share six ways you can support your wellbeing by embracing nature.

If you’re going to be in nature, be in nature

Getting out into nature isn’t just about being outdoors - it’s about getting back in touch with your mind and body’s natural rhythms. So, try going for a walk and leaving your phone at home. Focus on being in the moment and noticing what’s around you; the sights, sounds and smells.

Dr Nick Earley, Head of Psychology at Happence, agrees. “To really get the benefit, it’s important to not fall into the trap of being on autopilot.

“If you’re going for a morning walk, leave the earphones behind and instead try to be mindfully present. By taking in the surroundings and engaging the senses, you can start to process your thoughts and feelings. You’ll arrive back feeling better equipped to tackle the day ahead.”

Take your social events outdoors

Connecting with others and experiencing meaningful relationships is crucial for our emotional wellbeing. But, with social distancing measures set to relax further next week, we think this offers a reminder to do what’s right for you.

Just because you can meet indoors in groups of six (from Monday 17 May in England), that doesn’t mean you have to. If you’d rather continue to meet people outside, it’s OK to say that. And, there are many benefits of doing so.

Why not schedule your next catch up in the local park or arrange a trip to the seaside to experience the power of ‘blue mind’.

Connect with animals

Call us biased, but one of the best things about the natural world has to be the animal kingdom. From pooches to parakeets, koi to cats, our pets can have a profound effect on our mental health. If you’ve got a pet, be sure to make time for play or to spend time in their company. Not only will it benefit you, but it’s also great for their sense of wellbeing, too.

But, even outside the home, animals have other innovative ways of supporting our mental health. Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a therapeutic model that uses animals to help people with both physical and mental health conditions. Studies have found AAT to be particularly helpful for decreasing anxiety, depression, and isolation, while increasing motivation, feelings of being socially supported, and even decreasing the perception of pain.

Replace your commute

Many of us are still working from home, meaning our daily commute is (at least for now) a thing of the past. Instead of using that time for an extra-long snooze or to do unpaid overtime, try to use it to get outside and get active instead.

If you’re set to go back to commuting at some point this year, it can be a good way to prepare you for your normal routine again. Get up and ready to leave at the time you usually would get in the car or head for the train, and then use that time to go for a walk or to head outside with a cuppa and a book. It’ll help you to adjust back to your commuting routine.

But, if you are still commuting, have a think about other times you can build in time for some outdoor exercise. Could you get to work half an hour earlier for a stroll with a colleague before you start your working day?

Get your hands dirty

The use of gardening as therapy isn’t anything new. Studies have pointed to boosts in serotonin in the brain from being outside as well as the light exercise that gardening provides. Plus, the act of caring for plants is, in itself, a supportive, mindful experience – research has shown that repetitive chores such as weeding and watering can induce a meditative-like state.

The great news is that you don’t have to be a professional gardener to get the benefit. Here, we explore some powerful plants that come with their own wellness properties.

Talk it out(side)

Some wellbeing professionals such as counsellors and therapists offer services outdoors, in the form of ‘outdoor therapy’.

As outdoor counsellor Elaine Thelier explains, being outdoors has the potential to provide us with a more embodied, sensory, and expansive way of working with the many issues that we bring to therapy.

“For some people, eye contact is too much. So, side by side walking facilitates a much easier conversation about difficult feelings,” she says.

“The silences are also OK. In a therapy room, the silences can be deafening, awkward and unbearable to tolerate. Outside, the silences are often accompanied by muted sounds, birdsong, wind in the trees, raindrops. And this can often help to ease the pain and anguish that can be difficult to manage in therapy.”

If you’d like to explore how outdoor therapy could help you or to find a professional that offers this service, you can find out more at Counselling Directory.

We hope these tips can help you to champion positive mental health by embracing nature and the great outdoors.

For more information about this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week’s theme and for more top tips for connecting with nature, visit the Mental Health Foundation.