Source: Freepik by Yanalya
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and this year’s theme is ‘Nature’.
Nature encapsulates green and blue spaces. Nature is around us, in urban settings (parks, gardens, allotments); rural settings; farms, countryside’s, natural forests and blue spaces such as lakes, rivers and coastal surroundings.
Countless evidence and research have shown that spending time in nature can have a positive impact on your mental health.
In the paper Ecotherapy – A forgotten Ecosystem Service: A review – 2018, the effectiveness of nature in helping to improve mental health and emotional distress such as self-worth, anxiety, and depression was highlighted.
Active participation in nature (i.e. engaging in activities in nature) has been proven to be effective in the therapeutic sense. In this blog, I outline six active participation therapeutic exercises that are simple yet offer stress-reducing and calm-inducing properties.
1. Connect with your senses
Connecting with the world around us using our senses is a truly engaging and reflective process. It enables us to truly be in the here and now and aid awareness of our ability to be present. When we are stressed or feeling overwhelmed people tend to complain about their inability to control or manage, so making a conscious effort to connect with our senses offers light relief and a grounded sense of self.
The following exercise below is particularly helpful when we feel stress and overwhelmed and want to stop negative thoughts or feelings.
Exercise: Go for a walk or simply attend to the garden.
Practice the 54321-grounding exercise
See – What five things do you notice? Look out for detail, patterns, shapes
Touch - What four things can you touch? Notice textures, sensations on your skin Source: Freepik/ Hero Images
Smell - What three things can you smell? Pay attention to potent and delicate smells around you.
Hear – What two things can you hear? Listen to subtle, near or far
Taste – What one thing can you taste? You want to carry a sweet or gum out with you or simply think of a taste based on your surroundings
Notice what emotions you experience during this exercise and connect with them.
2. Harness the power of the mind while in nature
Our mind is a powerful tool, but unfortunately, many of us fail to realise that our thoughts often shape the way we feel. The good news is we can channel positive feelings by simply visualising, connecting our thoughts to the world around us.
A great exercise bringing together nature and our mind is the ray of light exercise.
Exercise: Immense yourself in the sun’s ray (no sun needed)
Venture outdoor – garden, park, riverside, lake, beach.
Sit or lie down and get comfortable, finding a relaxed position, and let your body begin to relax.
Close your eyes
Take a deep breath in, and as you exhale, allow yourself to release any tension you notice in your body. Take slow, calm breaths. Imagine that there is a ray of light above your head... this light appears to extend beyond the sky…boundless (imagine it as it travels out of the earth towards the suns ray)
Now bring your attention back to your body… the light enters from the top of your head....and gradually moves down your face, you feel its sensation, its glow starts to travel down every limb and part of your body
The light makes you feel safe and connected to the world around you
You notice as the light surrounds you internally to your feet and out into the world
You feel ..... its glow, connected to the world around you.
You breathe in the glow and exhale out the glow.
Notice its power, its beauty and glow in its awe, it brings life, energy and a sense of calm.
Sit in its comfort
Enjoy it. Hold on to its inner glow and remember that you can imagine this light again, any time you need to, and in your own time, slowly return to your present surroundings.
Open your eyes.
3. Conscious breathing
Paying attention to our breathing, aids calm and distract us from our thoughts. Deep breathing is an effective practice to lower stress in the body. As it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. Making a conscious effort to pace your breathing will improve your stress levels and general wellbeing.
Exercise: Slow things down with the Breathing 4/4 technique
Find a quiet spot and make yourself comfortable.
Place your hand on the top of your stomach/abdomen area (the centre point of the ribs)
Breathe in through your nose, in a count of 4,3,2,1. Step 3 - Breathe out, through your mouth in a count of 4,3,2,1.
Repeat as many times as you need, or as you notice your breath return to a comfortable pace. Step 5 - Notice the cool air as it enters your nose.
Notice the warm air as it leaves your mouth.
Notice your hands as it moves up and down as you breath in and breath out.
Notice your thoughts, accept them allow them to drift in and out.
Continue your breathing till you need and want.
When you are ready you may want to allow exercise 1 or two, or simply return your breathing to a comfortable pace.
4. Use the power of water to wash away stress
Water is a recognised effective therapeutic tool, immersing yourself can be an effective source to aid calm and relaxation. In addition, sitting and listening to the flow of water can be soothing and tranquil.
If you can enjoy the benefits of water and have a river, lake or beach nearby then find a quiet place to listen and imagine the water washing away your troubles.
However, you can utilise water recordings or features in the garden to aid the same effect.
Exercise: Water visualisation & mediation (This visualisation is best experienced by water).
Start with noticing the pace of your breathing, bring it to a slow and comfortable pace. Listen to the flow of the water, notice the rhythm and pace.
Visualise water flowing down a stream, notice as the water washes over pebbles and rocks.
Allow yourself to connect with the steam, you are a pebble, let water flow over you, wash over you and cleanse your worries and pain.
You may practice affirmations as the water washes over you – ‘ I am free’, ‘I am relaxed’, ‘All is as it should be'.
Allow yourself to sit here for a little while, listening to the sounds of the water.
Imagine how the water will feel to touch, think of words that describe the experience of water touching your skin – refreshed, wet, cool, clean….
Bring your attention to your breathing, notice how calm and relaxed you are.
If you own time, start to slowly return to the here and now.
Being out in nature provides a sense of freedom and openness. Coupled with this out space and ability to move freely offers a sense of relief.
Movement outdoors can take shape as running, walking, yoga, tai chi, cycling, swimming.
Exercise: Stretch to reduce stress
Stressing isn’t just what you do after a workout or in a yoga class. It can be used to relieve stress and improve your quality of sleep, tackle muscle tension and fatigue. Stretching allows you to notice where you may be carrying stress in your body.
You can do this standing or sitting in an open outdoor space.
Start with a gentle breathing pace (i.e. Inhale for 4, exhale for 4), continue for about 20-30 seconds.
Neck stretches: Drop your chin and drop your head to stretch your neck. Notice any tension in your neck, lean your head slightly forward as you exhale out, move your chin toward your chest. Breathe steadily and hold the stretch for about 20-30 seconds and slowly release it. Repeat the stretch 2-5 times.
Ear to your shoulder stretch (neck and your upper trapezius): slowly lean/tilt to your right side with your head, bringing your ear towards your shoulder. Hold the stretch for about 30 seconds (keeping your shoulder away from your ear) and then release it. Repeat the stretch on the opposite side, and as many times ensuring its equal amounts on each side.
Round back stretch: Bring your hands together and clasp them in front of you in a parallel position to the floor. Notice any tension in your head, neck and shoulders and gently relax them as you round your upper back. Breath in and as you exhale out push your hands further forward in front of you and feel a deep stretch in your upper back. Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds and slowly release. Repeat another 2-3 times
Hips and ankle stretch: Depending on if you are standing or sitting this works similarly. Bring your right leg up towards your chest, place your hands clasped in just below the kneed and squeeze your leg towards your chest. Ensuring your back remains straight, inhale in and as you exhale squeeze your knee closer to your chest. Hold the tension and bring your attention to your ankle and roll the feet 360 to release any tension you may have. Then slowly release. Repeat the stretch on the left leg and each side 2-3 times.
6. Get creative in the great outdoors.
Even if you do not consider yourself to be Monet, the benefits of drawing, painting, or writing in nature has been highlighted throughout history.
In the research paper, The connection between art, healing, and public health (2010), the benefits of art and creative activities such as writing, drawing, painting dance, music, can help reduce stress and improve mood and wellbeing.
Exercise: sit under a tree and see the good
The objective of the exercise is to capture the essence of what is good in the here and now.
Find a comfortable spot under a tree.
Observe the world around you and note to yourself 5-10 good things (either in the world, in you, or good in your life.
You may want to bring a journal or notepad and jot down your thoughts.
You may want to take the time to draw what you notice as good around you.
If you are interested in more information about improving your health and wellbeing, get in contact with Kemi@wellnesslink.co.uk
1. Stuckey HL, Nobel J. The connection between art, healing, and public health: A review of current literature. Am J Public Health. 2010 Feb 1;10