Nature boost: How time outside can lift your mood

    9 November 2020

    It’s cold, the nights begin in the afternoon and the ground is too soggy to sit on. This second lockdown isn’t taking place against the same sunny, birdsong-filled backdrop of the first one earlier this year. At least back in the spring, getting outside for your permitted daily exercise was pleasant. For many people, this is the time of year when getting outside is deeply unattractive.

    But it would be a mistake to choose to stay indoors during this lockdown. There is a wealth of research suggesting that time outdoors is highly beneficial for our mental health, helping to reduce stress, improve our self-esteem and problem solving abilities, and even protect us from mental illness. Learning to love the colder months could help those of us who are struggling mentally with the new restrictions.

    This might sound like the sort of advice Pippa Middleton might give to people planning a party, but you will enjoy being outdoors in winter so much more if you are suitably dressed. Alfred Wainwright wrote that ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing’, but this isn’t something English people – Londoners even more so – are particularly good at heeding. Most of us seem surprised by cold weather and rain, failing to own a decent pair of weatherproof shoes or a proper coat. Wrap up warm, take something waterproof and you’ll want to stay out longer than if you’d sauntered out of the house dressed for a shopping trip. Swaddled in warm clothing, you will start to enjoy the weather, even if it is raining. There is a comfort to feeling the frosty air on your face while your toes wriggle all warm and snug in dry shoes.

    Here are three things to do to help you use the outdoors to look after your mental health during lockdown: 

    Go on a street tree walk

    You might not live anywhere near real woodlands, but even cities and towns are full of fascinating urban trees. The next few weeks will see them chucking their brightly-coloured leaves down onto the pavements, and then you can admire the patterns of their bark and the shape of their twigs and branches.

    Among the most beautiful autumn trees are Sweet Gums, which have a flurry of different colours on their branches all at once, Sycamores, Ginkgos, Acacias and American Ashes.

    We rarely notice bark and twigs in the summer when trees are the green lollipops of children’s drawings. They become more complicated in winter, with the leaf fall revealing both their form and the surprising number of colours in a hibernating tree. Hornbeams are so neat that you might be forgiven for thinking someone sneaks out and gives them a regular haircut. Sweet chestnuts have a cable knit bark pattern, while cherries are covered in lines like an ancient manuscript. Even silver birches, which we appreciate for their bark, also have lovely purplish twigs.

    London Tree Walks by Paul Wood takes you on a series of wonderful adventures through the capital. Wood has written a great deal about the forest of trees that grow on our streets, and this book points out quite how many different ones you can see even on relatively short trips. On his Docklands walk, there’s a ‘Baobab’, which isn’t really a baobab but a strange cultivar of the London Plane which has a ludicrously swollen trunk. In Hackney there are Persian Ironwoods and a Bastard Service Tree, which is worth the walk just for the name. Make a list of the different trees you see, and try to identify those you don’t know. There are apps to help you identify common trees, including the Woodland Trust’s British Trees app. The Field Studies Council also has an excellent guide to identifying winter trees.

    Awaken your senses

    If your mental health is in a bad place, you may find that you are suffering from thought patterns you can’t break free from. This is even harder in lockdown when you don’t have as much opportunity to see other people or leave your home to distract you. One common technique used by people working with those who are mentally ill is to try to awaken the senses, and this is particularly easy outdoors.

    Put your phone away and start to work through your different senses. If there are herbs nearby, have a chew on one of their leaves. Notice the different scents of the leaf litter, of lingering flowers, and of the wet ground. Feel the textures of the trees and plants around you: lean your hand against tree bark, stroke some moss or run your fingers through grass seedheads. One ‘forest bathing’ session I attended while researching my book The Natural Health Service encouraged us to take our shoes and socks off and to stand on the wet ground. It felt absurdly hippy, but then again it also made me notice so much more about my surroundings. Listen to the sounds of the area: rain dripping through tree leaves, birds, children playing, and even the hum of a nearby road. Switch your focus from the things really close by and then to what you can see on the horizon.

    This is a nice activity anyway as it means you start to notice so much more in nature, but what it also does is help you to refocus your mind on what’s going on at that very moment, rather than the swirl of thoughts in your head.

    Write a daily list

    There is a fair bit of evidence that writing down five good things from your day helps to rewire your brain so that you develop a more positive attitude. But what’s even better than that is to write down five good things from the natural world that you’ve noticed. It means that if you’ve had a particularly rough day, you don’t need to think back over the bad bits, and instead you focus on something outside your own situation.

    Miles Richardson leads the Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby and has done some fascinating work on this. He asked fifty people to note three good things in nature each day for five days, and a control group of forty-two people to note three normal good things in their day. ‘We found the three good things in nature much more effective than the basic three good things,’ he says. The nature group became more connected to the world around them, and this led to improvements in their psychological health. ‘Increasing nature connectedness not only improves well-being,’ Richardson adds. ‘It improves pro-nature attitudes and behaviours which as we are increasingly seeing is critical.’

    When you start out, you might assume there isn’t much to see outside, either because it’s winter or because you live in a particularly grey bit of a city. But the winter is a wonderful time for unusual migratory birds, and cities contain clever species which have adapted to the urban landscape such a peregrine falcons. Not only will you be surprised by how many good things there are around you, you will also be unsettled by how much you’d managed to overlook until now.