22 May Finding comfort in the great outdoors (Advice from Solent Mind)
One of the biggest challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic is the uncertainty and worry that it has created in our lives. When uncertainty causes us to worry and become stressed, it can have a significant impact on our mental health. We may find it hard to sleep, become irritable or find it difficult to concentrate.
These reactions are born from our ‘fight or flight’ reflex: a stress response given to us by our ancestors who relied on a physiological reaction (increased heart rate and hyper-alertness) to know whether to run from or challenge danger, like predators.
Today, our ‘predators’ have fewer teeth but can still make us feel just as anxious and edgy; our relationships, work, money (and, if that wasn’t enough, pandemics!) can contribute to a sense of nervousness, worry or doom.
We have three golden rules for dealing with uncertainty and worry, which are perfect to stick on your fridge:
1. Be kind to yourself.
2. Accept and let go of things you can’t change.
3. Seek support from those you trust.
How you choose to accomplish these will be different for everyone, but there’s a place that can help you start to address all three: the great outdoors.
It’s been proven that humans feel peace and happiness when in nature. In fact, research tells us that stepping outdoors for as little as two hours each week is enough to help us feel better. By choosing to work on our anxieties in our county’s stunning scenery, we can reap its benefits and get a head start on focusing on our mental health.
Being kind to yourself
Nature provides an opportunity to switch off from stress and bank some valuable ‘me time’. In everyday life, we complete tasks that require concentration or ‘direct attention’, like figuring our maths problems, driving or reading. Too much direct attention can lead to mental fatigue which can make us feel distracted or irritable.
Our human instinct to be attracted to nature means that when we’re strolling through woodland or along a windswept beach, our senses are automatically tuned in. We’re not actually having to work to stay interested in what is going on around us, which provides a restorative break for our minds.
You can push this sensation of calm even further, through mindfulness. Find a quiet, safe spot and sit comfortably. List five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. If you mind wanders, just slowly bring it back to the present moment until your list is complete.
Accept and let go of things you can’t change
Time outdoors can help us draw parallels with our lives and help us find some perspective. A beach, a woodland or a meadow is patient, unrushed and has its own natural rhythm. Plants simply grow when they’re ready and shorelines retreat when the time is right. It reminds us that we exist in a world that can’t always be controlled or scheduled and is bigger than any one of us.
A useful mindset to adapt to, especially right now, is that although we may not be able to control what happens around us, we can control how we respond to it. Use the outdoor world to ponder what we can do for ourselves and our loved ones to make things easier, then see if you can give it a try when you get home.
Of course, just like nature, our own feelings are changeable. We have good days and bad days… if home-schooling, remembering bin day or simply getting out of bed is beyond you today, tomorrow is another opportunity to try again.
Seek support from those you trust
Our physical environments and the structure or rules we associate with them play a major role in our emotional health. Places that we associate with stress can give us a blind spot when it comes to processing our thoughts into words. A classic example is how we often find the best phrasing for an important email in the shower or the car, rather than in the office!
Nature proves a neutral environment which offers the space to find the words without pressure or judgement. Everyone is equal outdoors – experiencing the world around them from the same perspective. This makes for a perfect place to chat about how we’re feeling, especially for those who find face-to-face talks difficult. It’s often easier when you’re side by side instead, while running, cycling or walking the dog.
If someone else is telling you about their own mental health, let them take their time and resist the urge to fill any silences. You can show that person that there’s nothing to feel awkward about by asking open questions such as ‘how does that affect you?’ or ‘what can I do to help?’. Although no one expects you to diagnose or treat anyone, your encouragement could give them the strength to reach out to a professional.
If you or a loved one are in need of support, we’re here to help. Our free Coronavirus Helpline can offer you some quick tips and guidance, as well as signpost you to further support in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. Give us a call on 023 8017 9049, Monday-Friday, 10am-4pm. We’re open on bank holiday Monday too – so don’t hesitate to get in touch.