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The outdoors and mental health: an “after-the-lockdown” perspective

In these recent months of lockdown, I have felt drawn towards — or, better, hypnotized — by the nature around me.

I have surrounded myself with a dozen houseplants and been on daily walks in the most remote areas I could find.

I have felt that, now more than ever, since I have not been able to connect with the ones that I love in person, I needed to connect with nature.

Plus, trees don’t ask you “you’ll be 30 soon, when do you plan to settle down?”, which makes interacting with nature a lot easier than with family!

During lockdown, we saw our freedom to spend time outside our homes limited to one hour a day. A necessary measure that thankfully only lasted a few weeks, as lack of sunlight, social isolation and limited time in nature are known risk factors for the development of common mental health issues. Now that lockdown is finished (or partially finished) I thought I would share my experience of connecting to nature and finding a new sense of inner calm, beyond my yoga practice. If you read my previous blog on InSPIre the Mind, ‘Yoga philosophy and mental health: dare to go beyond the downward-facing dog’, you will know that yoga permeates all aspects of my life.

Yoga’s sister science, Ayurveda, teaches us that humans are made of five elements (earth, water, fire, air and ether), as is everything in the universe. This means that we are no more than an expression of nature ourselves — fluid like water, transformative like fire.

These five elements are materialised in our sensory organs. Our perception of the world is made possible through our five senses. Consequently, our internal world, our mind, is directly affected by these. I therefore believe that we are able to influence the state of our minds by choosing our surroundings.

Several studies, including this 2018 study focusing on UK households, have shown that rates of anxiety and depression in adults is higher in urban areas than in rural ones — and these findings account for socioeconomic status, employment status and household income.

Further examples include this multi-study analysis that showed that physical activity in the presence of nature brings benefits to mood and self-esteem. Another study argued that more green areas in a neighbourhood are linked to lower rates of depression, anxiety and stress.

Even if we are not fully aware of these effects of the outdoors, we have found clever ways to cope. Raise your hand if you have dreamed of leaving the city for a little cottage? ‘Cottagecore’ is a nostalgia or a longing for leaving urban life and living a slow, ideally sun-filled, rural life.

Following the government’s strict lockdown measures, a lot of us have spent hours dreaming of a life without supermarket queues, unlimited outside space, hills, meadows, and homemade sourdough bread. I even had a look on Zoopla (like all of London it seems) for a dainty property with a garden outside of London, close enough that I could commute to the office. Spoiler alert: I am a millennial and of course I can’t really afford anything like this.

On par, there has been an unprecedented surge on the sale of seeds and plants to curb the urge to move out of the city. I would know, I was that person who waited seven weeks for a few plants to be delivered from an online retailer.

Find peace and stillness in nature and you will find it within yourself. There is a beautiful quote by the 13th century poet Rumi that reminds me exactly of this.

““Do not feel lonely, the whole universe is inside you”” — RUMI

In my research for this blog I stumbled across a fantastic form of therapy that I didn’t know existed — ecotherapy — a treatment that involves outdoor activities in nature, such as gardening, farming, walking or cycling through nature.

Ahead of the curve, the Japanese have been practicing shinrin-yoku, translated as ‘forest bathing’. This practice, backed up by science, is not exercise but instead consists of taking in the forest with our senses, aimlessly and technology-free . This practice can even be done in more urban settings, like parks or gardens, as long as you have trees.

I have a little confession to make: before lockdown, a few times a week I would take a break from my office chair in the afternoon and would go for a short walk in Ruskin Park, the closest green space to our office in Denmark Hill. I would make a conscious effort to look at the trees, the little communal garden, smell the cold air and look at the clouds in the sky, without headphones, without letting my mind wonder too far. I would then come back to my desk more relaxed and feeling refreshed for the last couple of hours of work that day.

The app Headspace has some fantastic mindful walk meditations that invite you to watch, hear, feel and touch your surroundings during walks. A mindful walk is a fantastic way to bring you to the present moment!

If this doesn’t seem like your kind of thing, or you are not able to get out into a green space, there are other practices that the UK charity Mind suggests, such as growing or picking your food, having plants and flowers inside your home, doing outdoor activities, helping the environment or connecting with animals as ways to enjoy nature.

My tip: I love surrounding myself with leafy tropical plants and frequently play wave or forest sounds in the background while I work. See some of my plants below:

Some of my plants at home.

In conclusion, research has gathered really strong evidence on the benefit of nature in mental health. Even if you live in a busy city you can find ways to reap these benefits…You don’t need to move to the sticks and keep chickens!

I will continue to look after my Monstera deliciosa, go for daily walks in the park and I swear to pet every animal that crosses my way — even though I was once bitten by a rabid cat in the jungle, but that’s a story for another blog.


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