Promoting wellbeing – nature as therapy

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I once had the joy of telling a Tory MP that he was wrong.  I won’t name and shame him. He was actually OK…. for a Tory.

In summer 2015 I attended an event run by Mind in the Houses of Parliament, where Mind members like me were asked to come and talk to MPs from their region about why mental health is important.  I was on the South West table, which was graced with some almost amusingly out of touch and self-interested old boys from the afore mentioned political party.  It was pretty grim how minimal a clue they had about mental health, mental illness and everything in between (…to their credit I suppose at least they turned up – some tables had not one MP attend…).

Fairly late on in the event a slightly more switched on MP arrived at our table.  To be fair to him he engaged, he listened, and by his own admission, he went away with a better understanding of some of the mental health issues that his constituents might face, and the reasons why.  However, one of his opening comments, after I told him about the trek I had done for Mind was – “oh yes, I’ve heard that getting outside and having a good walk is a great way to cure depression.”  Cue some deep, patient breaths and slightly exasperated facial expressions from the Mind contingent around the table.

For my part, the trivialising of difficulties that many people with mental illnesses face drives me mad, if you’ll pardon the pun.  Much the same as sweeping statements like “we’re all on the autistic spectrum somewhere” and “I’m really OCD about my cupboards”, these beliefs bypass the complexity and debilitation which occurs with certain conditions. I understand that such statements are often flippant, unconsidered remarks.  Sometimes they are even meant with good intent; almost with empathy, an air of ‘we’re all the same really’.  But this is really just misguided kindness, and highlights the miscomprehension of many about the reality of others’ lives.

Apologies for starting on a tangent, but I am getting to my point.  I explained to the MP that most mental illnesses are far more complicated than requiring a mere dose of exercise and fresh air to correct.  I told him that what he was talking about was promoting wellbeing, rather than curing mental illness, and that there is an important and very large distinction. Obviously wellbeing is a part of good mental health – but it won’t make it or break it without a complex range of other factors.  And that’s without even acknowledging that in the case of some mental health problems, the first enormous hurdle is leaving a bed and a pair of pyjamas, let alone leaving the house and leaping around hillsides.  The MP accepted that there was a difference, and he listened and absorbed what people around the table had to say.

This conversation was brought to my mind again this week because I am in the Lake District, on holiday with my family. I have been reminded how nature and the outdoors is so important to me, both in times of dreadful mental health and in times when I feel really well, like now (…touch wood…).  I am lucky to live in beautiful Somerset, surrounded by amazing countryside every day. But the particular landscape of the Lake District helps me in a different way, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, and most simplistically, it is a place which holds lots of happy memories of holidays and adventure.  These experiences cannot help but promote wellbeing, not just at the time of them happening, but again and again and again for years to come, through the remembering of them.  Before meeting my husband I had never visited the Lakes, but as he grew up spending childhood holidays here, it wasn’t long into our relationship that he inducted me to the area. We have had lots of happy, active holidays here; pre- and post- children, and pre-, post- and during some of the most challenging times. The thing with holidays is that they are untainted by the hum-drum of every day life; the frustrations of work and home; the ups and downs which happen over time. They are a snapshot of treats, of joy, of fun – and this is one reason why they are so important in life. Both of our children have been weaned on holidays splashing in streams, scrambling up hills and rolling back down again, and not minding a bit of rain in the fresh air. My oldest, in particular, has really absorbed an absolute joy in messing around outside. He runs everywhere and darts about like a mountain goat, never tiring. In my opinion as his mother, nothing seems to make him happier than being outside – walking, exploring and skimming stones. Yes, there are chemical reactions in the brain which mean endorphins are released during exercise and of course this is relevant, but this is just one reason why the outdoors feeds wellbeing.

Secondly, the Lake District was the place where I took part in The Trek, which was the reason for this blog beginning in 2015. I won’t go over old ground – you can read some early blogs if you want to – but the trek was an incredible challenge and an absolute privilege to be part of. I think that when I am an old woman looking back on my life, the trek will stand out as a formative memory which changed my life for the better. It certainly gave me hope for the future, a re-discovered confidence, and a sense of achievement I had not felt in the previous, traumatic years.  In some ways the mountains where I walked were like friends who showed me tough love – they were never going to make the trek easy for me, but that made the experience of achieving it so life altering.

Thirdly, and most fundamentally, being surrounded by such awesome and imposing scenery does something to the way my brain functions.  I am far from being a tree-hugging hippy – I am much too cynical – but there is something about looking up at the formidable and uncompromising shape of a mountain, or the unrelenting power of a waterfall, or the silent peace of a lake, which makes me feel small and insignificant, in a wonderful way.  I know that I matter, to those around me who I am fortunate enough to be loved by. I know that my life, and the lives of the people I love, all matter . I know that my brother mattered and that the fallout from his tragic death matters. I know that the difficult experiences which I will undoubtedly face in the future, which I am as yet unaware of, matter.  But the mountains, the lakes, the trees and waterfalls which we walk by somehow dwarf the worries of the world. They are reassuring in their constant presence. You can go five, ten, fifty years without visiting the Lake District, and yet when you return, Scafell Pike, or Hellvelyn, or the Langdales will still be there, patiently humouring the thousands of people each year who want to climb them.  They will change slightly over time, due to the footfall of us humans or the toll of the weather, but their enormity and beauty will always remain.  For someone who does not hold a faith in a religious sense, this is probably as spiritual a comment as I will ever make.  The landscape somehow makes me feel that it’s all ok, however shitty and depressed I feel and whatever happens in my life and the lives of those I love, the mountains will be there – uncompromising in their enormity; constant and unfaltering in their presence; beautiful in their simplicity –  regardless of whether humans are there or not to marvel at them.  Although this in itself might sound negative or melancholy to some, it gives me a sense of peace which I find solely at the foot of a mountain.

During the deepest depths of depression or the most terrifying times of PTSD, a quick immersion in nature will never solve or cure. But the space and air and immensity of landscapes which inspire and remain with us – whether mountains, or deserts, or the ocean – are an important part of promoting wellbeing and of reminding ourselves that nature is bigger than us all, and our little lives.

Till next time.

Louise x

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