Long Reads

“How being around nature helps me manage my mental health”

Posted by
Kate Leaver
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As a new study reveals the benefits of being around nature, Kate Leaver explains why getting outside has always been a crucial part of her mental healthcare plan.

On Sunday afternoon, I ate a hearty roast lunch and then set off for a brisk amble in Hampstead Heath. It was a bitterly cold but beautiful, sunny day: one of those times that London really shows off. The sky was, would you believe it, blue. My childhood best friend and I walked through some seriously squelchy terrain, at one point following a baby Daschund wearing a jumper for as long as we could without creeping out her owners. 

Hampstead Heath has that glorious feeling of not being in London at all, like it’s a great, rugged patch of countryside wedged into the cityscape. You can get properly immersed in nature there – it’s got ponds and plants and birdsong, it’s got mud and shrubs and hilltops. When I got home, I trudged dirt into the hall and removed my muddy boots, heaving a sigh of relief because I felt lighter than when I set out (despite the roast potatoes).

Before my Sunday amble through nature, I’d felt drab and melancholy. I’d been lazing around at home, wrapped in my great big, pink dressing gown, shuffling about in my bright green slippers, snacking and reading and napping the day away in a bit of a grump. I live with bipolar disorder and had spent Saturday afternoon deep in a four-hour depression nap, hiding from the world in the safety of my bed. I’d spent the past couple of days feeling a little despondent. 

Sometimes the act of going outside the house is a gargantuan effort, but it always makes me feel better – lighter, somehow. A crisp winter breeze “clears out the cobwebs”, as my mother would say. It gives me this rather lovely rush of respite and peace, and I return home with a flush in my cheek, feeling like I’ve breathed properly. It is, sometimes, the least I can do for myself; a gesture of kindness. I think we would call it self care. 

I’ve always made nature part of my mental healthcare plan. It’s not a cure, obviously, but I do believe it has curative qualities. Along with a diligent program of anti-depressant medication, therapy, visits to a psychiatrist, calls to my parents and home-made dinners from my boyfriend, walking in the presence of trees has always been important to me. 

When I lived in Sydney, Australia, it was all about a walk along the coastline down by Bondi beach, where the smell of salt in the air would wake me up and make me feel that little bit more alive. Since moving to London, I’ve swapped beach walks for park wanders and the greenery does wonders for my heart, my mind and my legs. The physical act of putting one foot in front of the other is sometimes all I can manage, on a dark day, so to do it in the company of birds and dogs and trees is always encouraging and a little bit special.

As it turns out, science agrees with me that being in nature is good for our mental health. Researchers at King’s College London, landscape architects J & L Gibbons and art foundation Nomad Projects recently conducted a study that suggests being in the presence of trees greatly improves our mood. They used a smartphone app called Urban Mind to monitor 108 people’s movements and changes in mood over the period of a week. 

Those people all lived in urban areas but got out into nature, and the effects were delightful: seeing the sky, being near trees and listening to birdsong had significantly positive effects on mental wellbeing, both at the time and afterwards. Being in nature had an immediate and long-lasting effect on morale, particularly among those people who were deemed most likely to suffer from mental health issues. 

This new study echoes a report from last year that suggested people who live near trees and green space are less likely to be obese, inactive or dependent on anti-depressants. According to researchers from the Institute for European Environmental Policy, being in nature can reduce allergies and increase our self-esteem and mental wellbeing. Hopefully this sort of research hints to property developers that green space is a sensible and integral part of urban living, and that perhaps we should protect our natural surroundings. 

It should also be a sweet little reminder to anyone and everyone, whether you suffer from a mood disorder or not, to get out into the fresh air, breathe properly, look at the sky, appreciate the sounds and the smells of nature and the feeling of mud beneath your feet.

I know better than anyone that moving your body can be difficult when your brain is aching and your mood is low. But if you can muster the energy for a little walk among the trees, both science and I promise it’ll make you feel a little bit better than when you set out. It needn’t be an almighty hike through mountains – it could just be a meander through the park near your office at lunchtime, or a walk around your nearest common at the weekend with someone lovely. If London behaves, a little sun on your face is a brilliant addition, but even a grey sky will do. 

Just look upward and move onwards, and see if it doesn’t shift something in your heart. Ditch the headphones for a bit, too: as much as I love listening to former One Direction members sing to me, the sounds of trees rustling and birds chirping and dogs barking is all part of the experience. Enjoy. 

Images: Holly Mandarich, Getty