Maintaining a connection with nature to improve emotional wellbeing

It is no surprise that many meditation and therapy techniques promote the importance of connecting with nature. Studies published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology show that the development of this connection not only has a positive impact on an individual’s health and wellbeing, but also their actions towards looking after the health of the planet. Throughout our lives, we often seek solace in our natural environment to feel grounded and emotionally balanced, but what do we do during times when we are unable to step outside our own front doors?

Our ability to get outside and connect with nature can be impacted in a variety of ways. Problems with physical or mental health can make going outside seem like an impossible task. Overwhelming professional, academic, or domestic duties can result in a lack of free time. Or, as experienced over the last two years, lockdown restrictions due to a global pandemic can limit the time we are permitted to be outdoors. Thankfully, humans are good at adapting. When our normal way of life is affected, we find alternative ways to achieve balance. 

A Space of Your Own

When Virginia told us how important it was for a woman to have a room of her own, I understood. Yes, she was referring to fiction writing, but as a wife, mother, writer, and full-time student who rarely has space of her own, I feel justified interpreting this in my own way. In an ideal world my space would exist outside the confines of my mind, but this is not an ideal world, not for women. In a United Nations report looking into the impact of Covid-19, statistics revealed that the pandemic had a far greater impact on women in areas relating to health, economy, security, and social protection. In academia, women were also predominantly impacted. In Colleen Flaherty’s article for Inside Higher Ed., she explained that research into the number of academic journal submissions during the pandemic revealed that women’s research productivity had been seriously affected. Lack of personal space due to increased domestic responsibilities was cited as one potential factor. I know I have struggled balancing increased responsibilities at home while continuing my studies. Which is why I am grateful, thanks to visualisation techniques learned through guided mediation, to have created my own special place, one that I can visit whenever I want, or need to. 

Meditation

There is a place, a special place, where only you can go. It is peaceful, serene, the perfect place to unwind from the stresses of the day. Many roads lead here, you can choose whichever journey feels right for you. On arrival, sentinels of pine trees stand at attention to greet you. Their towering presence offers protection, and you inhale their deep, woody scent, feeling it fill you with life. Walking on, low hanging branches caress the exposed skin on your arms like bark-covered fingers, rough-edged, yet surprisingly gentle. Your anxiety of only moments before pools behind like discarded clothing; you have no need for it here. Up ahead, a verdant mosaic of perfectly formed foliage shapes into an archway leading you from one world to the next. Here, the air instantly tastes different—earthy, pure, free from man’s polluted touch. It flows into your lungs in slow, steady breaths slowing everything down. Your eyelids droop, heavy, before closing completely, allowing you to notice the hum resonating deep within, vibrating in response to the energy that flows here. Your feet feel it too, the warmth from the earth rises through the soles as your toes wriggle in the soft, feather-like grass. You are home, home at last.  

I began meditating as way to deal with anxiety and found it especially helpful during those agonising hours spent trying to fall asleep. You know the ones, where every scenario or decision you have ever made comes back to haunt you? In my youth, I was convinced that meditation was not for me. When I pictured it, I imagined this zen entity, who could empty their mind and transcend all earthly problems to achieve inner peace and calm, which was the exact opposite of how I saw myself. Thankfully, I discovered there are many ways to meditate, and like so many other things in life, it is a case of finding one that works for you.

There are a variety of apps providing meditation techniques, where you can experiment to find the right one. Through a process of elimination, I discovered that guided meditation enabled me to achieve a level of relaxation where I could experience the many benefits meditation had to offer. By listening to a calm, soothing voice, I was able to stop focusing on the never-ending thoughts and anxieties. Like me, you may also find that different styles of meditations work for you at different times, depending on how you are feeling. There are some nights where I opt for a hypnotic meditation, one which takes me on a journey or focuses on the relaxation of the body. Other times, I listen to soundscapes, where you can choose from a whole host of sounds depending on what you find relaxing. I enjoy rolling thunder, rainfall, or theta soundwaves to drift gently off to sleep. However, my favourite is visualisation, where I am encouraged to journey to a place that means something to me, one I have developed to become a haven, set deep in nature, and far from my waking life. When I am there, I can not only satisfy my meditative needs but also maintain my connection with nature.

Therapeutic Practice

Visualisation techniques are not only useful in meditative practice but can also help develop a more compassionate way of thinking about yourself. As part of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy); a talking therapy which helps manage problems with anxiety and depression, imagery is used as way to build compassionate thinking. Research shows that images are powerful in triggering emotions, and that by developing an image associated with a more compassionate mindset towards yourself, you can then use that as a tool to combat self-critical thinking. This image can be of a person, a place, an animal, or some aspect of nature, anything that you can associate with compassionate thinking. During a course of CBT last year, I chose a snapshot of my imagined place in the woods. It was by this point so clear in my mind that I often forgot it was not a real place. I learned to use this image whenever self-doubt or anxiety threatened to overwhelm me.

By interrupting the cycle of self-critical thinking, I developed a kinder way of talking to myself. How many of us push ourselves to the point of emotional exhaustion, trying to be both everything that is expected of us and everything that we want to be? Then, when we struggle, think it is a sign of failure, further feeding the anxiety only too willing to accompany us into the depths of despair, whispering words of disparagement and dismay. There was a time I felt helpless to resist and would get so caught up in a cycle of self-critical reflection that, in some ways, I felt I deserved to be berated for my inability to cope. My struggle was penance for my obvious lack of strength and resilience. I now understand that I could not have been more wrong. Looking after our mental wellbeing is not a sign of weakness. Those who experience challenges associated with mental health possess incredible strength, not only in dealing with them, but in recognising when to ask for help in learning how to overcome them.      

A Room with a View

In a recent study published in Landscape and Urban Planning Journal, it was found that whilst being in nature directly impacts overall life satisfaction, simply having a view of nature can also have a positive effect. This is because the wellbeing benefits experienced from nature depend on our feelings of connection. By having a view, from either the home or workplace, it is possible to maintain that all important connection, often resulting in increased benefits once you can go outside. It is comforting to know that my time spent gazing out of the bedroom window could also influence my wellbeing. Whether I am observing the weather, which can be four seasons in one day in the Scottish Highlands or enjoying the flurry of activity from the variety of birds who descend upon the birdhouse to dine in perpetual motion. By taking the time to appreciate the view outside, I am still maintaining my connection with nature, albeit from the cosy confines of my warm bed.

Sun streams through the window illuminating dancing snowflakes on their journey south. Confused seasons fight for status yet the beauty of both is not lost. Sparrows duck and dive depending on seeds scattered with love around the birdhouse. Daffodils shake their heads in frustration, regretting their decision to peek through so soon. The green soaks up the moisture, glowing with rejuvenation, as frost bitten tips recuperate in the in-between.

Writing for Wellbeing

Creative activities can also be an excellent way of exploring our environment and what nature means to us. I recently organised two writing workshops promoting the use of words for wellbeing, where the theme was finding alternative ways to feel connected with nature. We explored showing gratitude for a place that was special to us. We reflected on the various ways it inspired us creatively and emotionally. We took time to appreciate the natural world without physically going outside. We were also invited to look at our own homes, both inside and out, to see the various ways we could sense nature’s presence. This change of perspective enabled us to see connections we had not thought of before. Those who could not get out into nature as often as they would have liked or lived in an urban environment where a view of nature was not immediately available, found this a positive experience. It showed us how a different perspective can change how we view nature in our everyday lives. 

This home is no nest, that would be far too exposed, high on a branch with inadequate defences. This home is a burrow, buried deep in the soil, each chamber a womb nurtured by Mother Earth. It welcomes hibernation and solitude, holds each steady heartbeat deep in its roots. Asking for nothing more than ourselves.

Escape

Last week it was bears who had me enthralled. An author’s creations bringing landscapes and locations to life. How wonderful to escape into the pages of a book for a while. This week it was Hobbits, Frodo and Sam. I watched them adventure to defeat Sauron. They overcame adversities while I lay in bed. They saved the whole of middle earth before I was even dressed.

Reading is an excellent way of escaping and developing our connection with the world. Literature can transport us, either to places we are familiar with or have never experienced before. Recently, I have travelled around Scotland in a campervan experiencing majestic landscapes and interacting with wildlife, thanks to Sue Reid Sexton’s Writing on the Road: Campervan Love and the Joy of Solitude. I also shared her emotional journey of being a woman travelling alone. How unsettling the darkness could be when experienced in complete solitude. On one occasion, Sexton writes, “I am in fact utterly terrified. Have I, as feared, just met my maker?”. I have traversed from Shetland to Greenland to Canada to Alaska to Siberia to St Petersburg to Finland and Aland, Sweden and Norway and back again to Shetland courtesy of Malachy Tallack’s, 60 Degrees North. I was introduced to cultures and landscapes completely unknown to me and shared Tallack’s emotional journey dealing with loss, the feeling of displacement, and where it was in the world that he felt was home. When beginning his trip Tallack says, “To make such a journey, in which the final, certain destination must be home, was an act of faithfulness”. Whatever type of literature you enjoy reading, there are a wealth of options available that can not only provide escape but also a connection to the world, increased understanding, and improved emotional wellbeing. 

For those who prefer to escape watching a TV programme, film, or documentary, a study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, showed there could also be benefits from observing the world in a digital way. It focused on care-home environments to explore various ways of viewing nature virtually. They used TV programmes and virtual reality devices and found that both techniques resulted in improvements to mood and reduced feelings of boredom. Another study in the same journal looking at the connection between nature and pro-environmental behaviours, found that people who watch nature programmes often display more considerate actions towards the health of the planet. These findings not only highlight why popular series like Attenborough’s, Our Planet, are important in raising awareness and understanding of the natural world, but they also show how these provide an important connection to world around us. 

No Wrong Way

Whether you look to nature to create a space of your own, improve health, or be creatively inspired, it is encouraging to know that there are a variety of ways to explore the natural world to help maintain that all-important connection with nature and improve our emotional wellbeing even during times of isolation.

You see before you a clearing in the woods. There is a small wooden cabin and a melodic, winding stream. Here, you feel separate from everyday life. A gentle breeze stirs the air, dancing over your skin like a whisper as it carries the sweet scent of honeysuckle as a welcome-home gift. The afternoon sun shimmers overhead, its gentle warmth surrounds you in a loving embrace. You have come to sit by the stream, to listen to her sing soothing songs. Some nights she is fast flowing, others she is slow, meandering, telling tales of where she has been and where she will go. The motion of the water flows over you as it caresses every rock and boulder. Every cell of your being remembers this place. You are born from the same womb. Coming here reminds you of what gets lost in the rush of day-to-day life; that it is not the deadlines, the duties, the housework, or the cooking that matters. It is about stopping and listening, truly listening, to all that nature has to say.

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