Health & The Outdoors by Dr Harriet Webb
I'd like to introduce you all to a recent Procrastination Paper subscriber and my aunty, who I lovingly call 'Aunty Doctor Hat'. She trained as a doctor in London, before practising as a GP in Milton Keynes, Australia (for over 20 years) and now Cumbria, where she spends most of her spare time out in nature, walking and tending to her impressive garden and vegetable plot. Hat is a big believer in the healing power of nature and the benefits it can have on our mental wellbeing, so I asked her to share some of her words of wisdom with us. I know that not everybody will have hills on their doorstep or a vegetable patch in their garden to tend to, but I hope that Hat's words help you find a way to prioritise nature in a way that is possible for you. This article was originally printed in issue 10 of the Procrastination Paper: Health & Wellbeing.
'The Outdoors' - it's open to us all, it's free and it's just over the back doorstep. If we venture there we can enrich our lives and improve our health. Rural or urban, coastal or mountainous, north or south there's something for everyone. Speaking as a GP, it's my favourite prescription.
Our world is fast and frantic. Stress and burnout are common symptoms. Reconnecting with the natural world tends to help us by slowing the pace. It slows the pulse, calms the breathing. It allows us time to notice and relish the simple pleasures. Remember our childhood delight in dandelion clocks, ladybirds, clouds that look like animals, collecting conkers, splashing in puddles? It's all still out there and just as magical, we just don't notice. Why not let your inner child guide you away from the complex adult world? Open your mind and imagination. Out there we can find fun once again in playtime (see issue 8 of the Procrastination Paper for more on this)!
For many, being outdoors is social time; playing team sports, walking the dog, meeting other pet owners in the park, or just recognising faces in the neighbourhood. Becoming a recognised local has its own benefits, weaving us into the community fabric and establishing our connections. Feeling connected leads to familiarity and a sense of belonging. Like stepping into a room full of friends rather than strangers, it reduces anxiety and helps provide us with support and stabilisation, encouraging self-confidence.
Likewise, becoming aware of the rhythm of the seasons, the weather, the tides and cycles of the moon is grounding. There is reassurance in the continuation of that inevitable daily progression, subtly shifting forwards despite relentless variation. We are made well aware of the physical benefits of exercise these days, outdoor and indoor. It doesn't have to be intensive, just regular. Some of the obvious positives are cardiovascular and respiratory fitness, muscle strength and coordination, plus weight and blood pressure control. But basically every aspect of our bodies will be healthier. Walking, running and cycling can all take us out into our surroundings with the added advantages of fresh air and an escape from screens! There's no subscription to pay, minimal equipment required (yes wellies and a mac help in the UK) and it's open all hours, so really we have no more excuses NOT to be using our natural playground, as long as we are able to get outside.
Exercising outside is different to gym time - watching where you are going, listening for traffic, avoiding lamp-posts and puddles all concentrate the mind, taking us into a different mindset. This is not very different to meditation, and for those who feel unable to engage in quiet meditative time it is a great alternative. The regularising of our rate of breathing, or counting of steps adds to this and take us away from the lists we carry in our heads. However, for others there is nothing quite like an adrenalin rush to wake you up in the morning or refresh you after a day of sedentary work. Clearing the mind, alerting the senses, and kick-starting the circulation refreshes those vital organs with a rush of oxygen. A steady walk or a sweaty run, or even a bit of both... you'll recognise the one that suits you best.
More recently it has been acknowledged that there are significant benefits of spending time outdoors on our mental health. With so much access to world news we can feel burdened by distant concerns we can do little about. A sense of general gloominess and hopelessness is not unusual after watching the news or reading the paper. However, in becoming more aware of our immediate surroundings it is evident that we CAN make a difference - picking up litter for example, or planting a tree. Taking the focus off ourselves and finding a place for us in the natural world also helps us to keep our perspective. It's levelling to choose a clear, dark night and look up into the depths of a starry sky. When you imagine looking down on yourself from space some problems seem to shrink away. Perspective can help us see the bigger issues more clearly.
Life is often challenging. Challenge is not all bad. It has the positive of offering us achievement and fulfilment, the building blocks for self-confidence. In turn this reduces anxiety and helps us build up self-esteem. There are rewarding challenges for us out there, embracing them enriches us and makes us stronger.
We can easily become anxious, stressed or depressed. For many there is some comfort and inspiration in witnessing the parallels all around us, 'the circle of life'. Tiny glimpses of hope when we need reassurance - the resilience of that windblown poppy, surviving against all odds in a tiny crack in the tarmac or the fox adapting to survive in an urban environment as we take over his natural habitat. We are not alone in our battle to survive life. We can find a restorative peacefulness in the beauty of our world, especially at times when we seek comfort.
Where I think we can really find benefit is in our emotional wellbeing. Awakening our senses brings us back to life and connects us to our environment. Conjure up the image of a bumble bee strolling over a flower head, the sound of rain pattering down on your hooded head, the scent of freshly mown grass, the crunch as your step breaks the ice on a puddle or the sweet taste of honeysuckle flowers. Perhaps this will evoke an emotional response; delight, surprise, fear, respect or disgust (slugs!). Living in a fast modern age means we are often time poor and one of the things we tend to shelve for later is our emotional response to whatever life is throwing at us. A backlog of suppressed feelings can create blockage and eventually either cause us to shut down or feel overwhelmed. It's not unusual for me to talk to people who are clearly distressed without actually knowing how they feel. I think emotional exercise is part of what we need to equip us in learning to absorb life's jolts and twists, to keep us up to date. The more we can acknowledge how we feel, in the moment, the more able we are to enjoy the good times and cope with the tough times.
Which brings me to gardening - such a mundane word yet one encompassing an almost never-ending list of possibilities. Take a seed, some soil and some water - visit regularly and apply patience. It's as simple as that. Watching life emerge from something so tiny, sprouting and eventually coming to flowering and fruition. Surely that's enough to inspire and give a little joy. Windowsills, patios, balconies, allotments and gardens are spaces for performing small miracles and experimenting with the magic of natural science. The NHS has even set up a scheme acknowledging the benefits of gardening on our mental health, so why not get ahead and consider it as a way of avoiding mental health problems rather than using it for treatment of those already diagnosed? The delight of watching your first daffodils bloom, the earthy satisfaction of digging up your potatoes, preparing your own vegetables with home grown herbs... these are ancient rituals that have become something of a hobby. There is fun in it - therapeutic digging, artistic pruning and experimentation with unusual veg. Race your friends to the tallest sunflower, compare your quirkiest carrots, compete for the biggest marrow.
Taking pleasure in our environment and feeling more at home there perhaps, will encourage us to value it more highly and care for it as we should. Taking some responsibility as an individual, and combining our efforts with our neighbours builds communities with a common aim.
Maybe like this we can create an opportunity to start reducing the massive impact we have been making on our generous and forgiving world.
How about giving yourself an outdoor challenge, a decision to make the time for observing what's in your neighbourhood - find a bird, a tree or a flower and identify it. Hand on your little gems of new information to friends and family and share the joy of life - literally!