This week (10th - 16th May 2021) is Mental Health Awareness Week - dedicated to raising awareness and overcoming the stigma associated with mental health. A topic which was once taboo (and in many families and cultures still is) never has there been a more pressing time to become aware of our own mental wellbeing, as well as the mental wellbeing of others.
According to Mental Health First Aid England:
An estimated 792 million people are affected by mental health issues worldwide.
1 in 4 people in the UK experience mental health problems each year.
1 in 6 children/young people aged 5 - 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition.
In the past 25yrs, the rate of depression has increased by 70% amongst teenagers.
75% of mental health problems are established by age 18.
70-75% of people with diagnosable mental illness receive no treatment at all
At a time in history where fear, anxiety and social isolation have been prevalent in so many households, now is the time time to begin empowering ourselves in promoting our mental and physical health (which are inextricably linked), our emotional wellbeing and overall ability to deal with life's adversities. The theme for this years Mental Health Awareness Week just happens to be Nature, which is one of my favourite healing tools.
As a species our environment has changed significantly over the last couple hundred years with the constructions of towns and cities, which have transformed the natural landscape for millions of people into a concrete jungle; and where prior to the pandemic air pollution was considered the biggest environmental threat to health in the UK. While many people will actively try and get out in nature when their schedules allow, not many people realise the plethora of health benefits that there are to spending time in nature, and the need to prioritise it as a form of healthcare.
The evidence on the benefits of being in nature is extensive:
Research suggests that when we breathe in phytoncides (a chemical released into the air from plants, trees, vegetables and grasses) it increases levels of white blood cells essential for fighting off infections and diseases.
There is also evidence that a strain of bacterium found in dirt – Mycobacterium vaccae – has been found to lower anxiety and improve cognitive function.
Research on ‘forest bathing’ indicates optimum nervous system functions, well balanced heart conditions and reduced bowel disorders.
Exposure to direct sunlight and vitamin D alone can promote the body’s immunity to diseases like osteoporosis, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
Evidence shows that being outdoors can reduce eyesight problems, reduce fatigue, promote emotional regulation, memory functioning, energy and motivation. It can also lower stress and symptoms of depression, as well as promote attention and focus.
See the article below for a more comprehensive overview.
A specific way of interacting and harnessing the healing properties of nature and drawing in its benefits is through the process of Grounding aka Earthing. This technique involves activities that electrically connect the body to the earth and is based on the theory that the earth’s negative charge combats the positive charge of inflammation associated with certain illnesses such as injury, infection, trauma and stress. The most common grounding techniques are: to walk barefoot on the earth/grass, or to lie down on it, or to immerse the body in natural water. Grounding has a multitude of benefits for the body including anti-oxidising the body, promoting immune functioning, promoting cardio-vascular health as well as pain reduction due to its anti-inflammatory effects. And it reduces stress!
See the following link for more information on Grounding:
But if that sounds a bit too hippy dippy for you, then I invite you to simply take some time out to spend in nature and really allow yourself to connect with your environment – observe the thoughts, sensations and emotions you experience. Notice the little details in the environment around you that you would normally miss. A simple exercise that is easy to do and remember is known as the 54321 Grounding Technique and involves the following:
Bring your attention to 5 things you can SEE in your environment and name them in your mind - notice the colours, textures, lighting, movement of these things.
Bring your attention to 4 things you can FEEL in your environment - from the feeling of the ground beneath your feet to the air on your skin, temperature, the clothes hugging different parts of your body...what physical sensations are you aware of?
Bring your attention to 3 things you can HEAR - the sound of birds, leaves rustling, planes, cars...silence. Observe how it feels to listen to these sounds in and around nature.
Bring your attention to 3 things you can SMELL - what do these smells remind you of and how do these smells make you feel?
Bring your attention to 1 thing you can TASTE - perhaps the taste of your toothpaste, coffee or something you ate still lingers.
Allow yourself to use all 5 senses to connect with your surroundings...you may just discover something new. And if it feels good, perhaps you may want to consider making it part of your regular mental and physical health care routine...surely it beats waiting around at a GP surgery!