Mental health - nature, our relationships, and the human spirit
Updated: May 23
I was fascinated while listening to Sue Stuart Smith and Jonathan Bate on the Andrew Marr radio 4 show Start the Week broadcast on 13 April 2020. Situations and resources fundamental to good mental health were explored. I thought I would summarize and add my take on things in this blog for HeadScape readers.
The importance of nature to our mental health was the first item discussed and its proven anti stressful effects on us. Some recommendations for times of high stress and anxiety are:
If you can, be in a natural environment. Try and get outside. If not, recreate sensations of the outside, inside. For example, recreate running water. Miniature desk top waterfalls and sand tray’s with garden rakes are available quite cheaply. Rearrange your rooms so that you have a view of the outside. As the weather is fine, open your windows for the dawn chorus and or evensong. Pay closer attention to bird song. See if you can distinguish between different sounds. Heighten your awareness by using your senses more mindfully. Giving yourself up to paying full attention to the detail of what your senses are offering you can be deeply calming. “Bathe yourself in nature”, said Jonathan. He suggested that in dark times, think back to other times when you were in nature, fully aware of it and calmed by it. Quiet beaches are often a source of good memories of nature, as are long walks in the countryside. Currently it is not so easy to take advantage of those kinds of situations – especially if you live in a high rise flat in a city, but we can count on our memories to take us somewhere else. This can be reinforced by sharing memories of being in nature with friends. Or sharing any good memories in general come to that. The point is to use any or all the above to calm yourself as part of the mastery of your symptoms.
We are relational beings. Our connections with and attachments to people are also a resource for supporting mental health. As are our attachments to place. Stuart Smith refers to John Bowlby and his work on attachment. This was originally about the importance of the relationship between infant and mother. The theory has been extrapolated to inquiry about people’s attachment in general, including attachment to place, which is also believed to be significant. Our ability to bond to place is a complex multi-sensory process and can be profoundly stabilising. Place provides a sense of connection to the wider world and relationships and in turn, a stronger sense of self can result. All this can bring about anxiety reducing experiences.
I recently lost an aunt to illness. She was always around during my childhood and she meant a lot to me then. It was not possible for the wider family to attend the funeral because of social distancing requirements. My cousin Robert started a WhatsApp group to keep us updated about what was happening. Since, the wider group of cousins have been sharing their memories of childhood together – including holidays, family events and just ordinary extended family life. That has had both a healing and calming effect on me and, has made me feel closer to my family – even in the sadness of the loss of my aunt. Sharing photographs of happy memories can also lift the mood – especially if they lead to warm exchanges and conversations as they have in my case.
In ‘A well-gardened mind’, Sue Stuart Smith speaks of the importance of curtilage. I had to look-up the meaning of the word - it is the area of land or ground that surrounds or is attached to our homes. Those that are fortunate enough to have curtilage, in one of its forms, usually garden, can benefit from the continued safe space that it provides around and next to the home. It provides a physical connection and, a psychological one. The home and curtilage can be safe spaces, and, in some cases, curtilage can provide privacy similar to inside the four walls of the home. I recently saw a man removing some turf from a traffic island next to his home. He planted flowers in place of the turf. The process of doing so and the results seemed to me to be a way for him of making the most of his curtilage and perhaps some long held human instincts were at play. Sue Stuart Smith implores us to take a good look at nature and maintains that it will do good things to us – however minimal. She has researched the connections between different mental health problems and gardens. She found that for example an enclosed garden behind a wall or fence can create feelings of extra safety and can be therapeutic for people who have experienced trauma or are anxious. A walled garden can be experienced as a place away from fears. She also maintains that gardens where plant pattern or organization is discernible, and there are no surprises, can be calming for those with autism. The smell of the damp earth typically after rain, known as petrichor, is the scent connected to sustaining life. The bacteria in the microbiology of the garden is known for boosting the immune system. Lavender is known to increase levels of serotonin, the chemical sometimes called the happy chemical, because it contributes to wellbeing and happiness. Rosemary contains dopamine and is associated with boosting the memory.
At this time of uncertainty there seems to be some potential for us to make more of our connection to the earth and the land. Many people are commenting on the benefits to the environment because of reduced Co2 emissions. Surely by taking care of the earth and our land, that in turn will benefit us. We have a relationship to the land and nature in its wider sense that is often forgotten these days. Some observe that kindness and generosity have come to the foreground as part of our response to the coronavirus pandemic. When it counts, we can take care of each other and maybe for many of us that is partly how we cope with the crisis - for ourselves and each other. We are concerned about the raised level of risk to some people in the home environment at this time. Our homes can and should be a safe place for us all. The introduction of references to nature, activity that brings more enjoyment of family and home, plus taking care of ourselves based on what we know about what we need, is a formula for coping – and arguably more. Indeed, we are required to stay at home. Using the inspiration of nature and what our relationships mean to us, the home can become a therapeutic environment.
At HeadScape Counselling and Therapy Service it is extremely important to us to take time to get to know people – for who they are as individuals, what they are looking for and what they need to feel a stronger sense of self. If they find it useful, we also help people to consider their needs and what they are looking for in relation to their people and their places.