Nature is therapeutic - it is official!
According to the University of Essex, MIND and the Government birdsong, experiencing green space, trees and the rustle of leaves is good for our health – not just physically, but also emotionally, mentally and psychologically. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/connecting-with-nature-offers-a-new-approach-to-mental-health-care
We are now getting lots of research about how nature helps to keep us from being unwell. We can build it into our lives everyday in terms of wellbeing – learning to be with the trees, flowers and birdsong and not just take it for granted.
When a client comes to me we always make an inventory of the things they enjoy doing – often these things have disappeared because the person has lost their ‘joy’ or ‘happy’. So with that we explore the things they used to do and we come up with a list of things they may want to continue with.
What are the benefits of walking?
I always ask clients to consider things that they have not done before as well – such as walking. You may well ask ‘what’s so beneficial about walking?’ https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/jun/05/best-foot-forward-why-walking-good-for-you
It’s not just functional – about getting from one place to another, although that is essential; or about the physical health benefits of getting some exercise. I explore the emotional, mental and psychological elements and I call it ‘Walking for Sanity’ – although I make a joke of it in the first few sessions, I am deadly serious about the necessity for it.
Walking for sanity is self-explanatory, or is it? I have experimented myself to see its benefits and also observed how clients use it. There is a marked difference in moods - it may seem tedious to do, to get out of the house, but once the person has been out and come back their way of being has shifted to being more positive. Even if the change is miniscule it is a bonus.
Only for fair-weather walkers? No!
Walking for sanity is not for fair-weather walkers – you need a good pair of shoes and a waterproof for when it rains or snows (ok, not when it snows – I wouldn’t want anyone to slip and hurt themselves!)
The main idea is to get out of the house and walk for a little while – initially, maybe to the end of the road or round the block and gradually increase to 5 minutes and incrementally over time increase up to half an hour. Sometimes if that feels too difficult try to walk to the bottom or around the garden or go to the park, even if you have to drive there, and sit on a bench.
How does walking help with mental health?
There are a number of reasons for this. If someone is anxious or depressed they find it difficult to engage with their body because of the stress levels and feelings. Sometimes when exploring with clients where they are, they state they are in their heads and below the neck is dead and seems inaccessible, they have withdrawn to a place of logic – this happens in extreme cases when there has been a trauma. Therefore for the client to get the best out of therapeutic work with me there has to be an engagement with emotions so walking is a good way of getting them to have a basic sense of the body. It also works with non-traumatised clients.
As the client is using this as a safety mechanism to keep him/herself from further harm, it is important to gently allow them to let go of it, hence I suggest walking because:
· it does not require too much effort (here I am not including those who have a condition and find it difficult to walk),
· it enables learning to breathe deeply again
· and by being outside causes there to be a change of scenery which involves engaging with life differently.
· Walking helps with health conditions such as arthritis - the joints are gently exercised and that alleviates pain.
· With mental health issues having fresh air and getting out and about means the person has to consider where they are and what they are doing which to some extent stops mulling over their concerns and starts to change the brain chemistry.
For some, walking is an easier way to get some exercise because going to the gym requires too much thought and preparation which may provoke distress because it used to be so easy to get there and exercise, and currently everything may feel like pushing water uphill. It may be difficult to get the shoes on and get outside – but it may be more manageable. Also, everything being equal, it is something that can be done at any time of the day regardless of mental health problem. As I say to my clients – ‘everything is a bonus’.
What does Walking for Sanity do?
The breathing enables us to open up the airways and learn to feel the bodily sensations again. By being outside it triggers all the senses and memories – so the purpose of walking for sanity is to enable the brain and heart to unlock the stuck places in the client. Of course by being outside we experience the seasons - the natural cycles of growth and decay and reconnect with the rhythms of nature, the sights, smells and sounds.
It’s free to walk, so there are no costly membership fees to be paid; you also get to choose when and how long – it’s not dictated by classes and timetables. You get to experience different things over the year: in spring the daffodils and buds on trees, the flowers and trees in full leaf during the summer, then the autumnal golden leaf fall and the blue and grey skies of winter. Coupled with this are the birdsong and the smells of the seasons.
It is especially important to get out and about in winter when the temptation is to stay indoors, especially in the UK where the days can be incredibly short – being out in the light or dark will still prevent a slump in mood. The bracing cold can energise, motivate and helps change mind-sets as there is a sense of being alive – especially when you get back into the warmth!
Thus Walking for Sanity is part of a holistic way of working on good mental health and taking care of yourself.
Kala Patel MA, Counsellor and Psychotherapist MBACP, PGCE (Oxon)