First things first; this is NOT a political blog. I’m going to use Theresa May’s trip to Snowdonia, where she decided to call a snap general election, as an example of the relationship between nature, mindfulness and clear thinking. We could explore the Prime Minister’s decision in the context of a leader engaging with their team and seeking a mandate for action, but that’s a whole other blog and fraught with political innuendo, so I’m not going there!

On the 18th April Theresa May walked out of possibly the most famous front door in the world and stood at a lectern to announce a general election on the 8th of June. That was the story of the day and as usual the pundits and journalists went in to overdrive.

What surfaced later in the same day was a secondary story that the Prime Minister had decided upon the general election whilst on a walking trip in Snowdonia. Gore-Tex clad correspondents were dispatched to North Wales and conducted on the fly interviews with bemused walkers from the Miners Track, one of the established routes to climb a mountain that I’ve loved for as long as I can remember.

What I find incredulous is that the tone of the story in the mass media suggested she’d done something wrong by going to the mountains and that the general public wouldn’t understand why on earth she was “up a hill” whilst all the world went to rack and ruin around her.

I’ve always walked, cycled, camped and partaken of outdoor activities. It’s been part of our family DNA through the Scout movement and friends over the years. I’ve always valued the mindfulness of it, the exercise and the opportunity to disconnect from everyday life. I just enjoy it and always come home refreshed and calm whilst paradoxically being tired, sweaty and sore from the exertion. That’s the cleansing or cathartic part.

A simple Google search yields several articles from 10th April where Mr & Mrs May are pictured attending church in Dolgellau and quotes a Walesonline article where Mrs May says:

“Walking in Wales is an opportunity to get out and about and see scenery and clear your mind and your thinking. We stay in a hotel and try to walk every day. Walking is about relaxing, getting exercise and fresh air.”

It’s completely sensible to me that a major decision should be made after a reflective period and this could be up a mountain. It surprises me that others think not, so I did some digging. It turns out that there’s a lot of science behind the impact of nature on mindfulness, wellbeing and your psychology.

In his 2005 book, Richard Louv coined the phrase Nature Deficit Disorder, which encapsulates the idea that human beings, especially children, are spending progressively less and less time in nature and that is an underlying factor in a wide range of behavioral problems. The description of Nature Deficit Disorder has been criticized as a medical diagnosis, because it glosses over a myriad of underlying reasons for the decline of time spent in nature. However it serves well as a description of the alienation of humans from the natural world. The list of associated problems includes dissociation from nature with a lack of respect for the natural world, a lack of ecological or environmental awareness, depression, attention disorders, anxiety disorders, obesity, reduced creativity and even rickets from the lack of sunlight. We’re now beginning to understand the impact that a lack of nature might represent on our lives in a much deeper way.

So if a lack of nature can cause problems or even disease, is it possible that an experience in nature could be therapeutic? I’ve always thought so, but it turns out that there is lots of evidence for this too. I’m going to look at some specific examples, but there’s a really nice paper entitled “A Dose of Nature: Addressing chronic health conditions by using the environment” that summarises it well.

Green Prescriptions are becoming more widely established and the New Zealand Ministry of Health has been pioneering in this field. Adoption within the NHS has followed as the evidence based has expanded. Examples include:

  • Referrals to appropriate voluntary sector organisations have been shown to improve patient outcomes in managing psychosocial problems, compared to GP inputs alone.
  • Studies in the BMJ show that a Green Prescription improves physical activity and quality of life over 12 months without adverse side effects and with a 20-30% reduction in all cause mortality.
  • An Asian study in the Journal of cardiology has shown spending time in the forest has therapeutic effects on hypertension.

Ecopsychology studies the relationship between human beings and the natural world, using psychological and ecological principles. The emotional connection between a human, shaped by their normal social construct, and the “more-than-human” natural world is deeply innate, crafted by eons of evolution and it’s one that we’re inevitably adapted to. This relatively new science is seeking to explore how we can develop sustainable lifestyles and remedy the alienation from nature, for example:

  • Eco-therapy, a facilitated experience in nature, but with a safety net of more formal support.
  • Using nature to enable significant change, decision-making and personal development. There are many providers offering development programmes in this area.

Shinrin-yoko, or Japanese Tree Bathing was first spoken about in the 1980’s and has since developed a robust body of work. The idea is deceptively simple: if a person visits a natural area or forest and simply walks in a calm and relaxed way, calming, restorative and rejuvenating benefits can be gained. It seems intuitive, but the list of reported benefits includes:

  • Reduced stress, reduced blood pressure and boosted immune system
  • Improved mood, energy and sleep patterns
  • Improved, deeper intuition and creativity
  • Increased ability to focus, even in people with diagnosed ADHD.
  • Overall increased sense of happiness.

So, at the risk of making a political statement: Theresa May is right. There is copious evidence on the benefits of taking a break in nature. Not only should you walk in the fresh air, you should disconnect from your technology and allow yourself an immersive experience. I know a few people who work in this area and it’s possible to experience such powerful flow experiences as to be life changing.

The obvious call to action is to literally go for a walk. For vets as a profession, with our well documented mental health and wellbeing issues, the main issue becomes managing your time in a way that gives us the chance to go for that walk. The dog owners among us might get that regularly but personally, with a Border Terrier and Labrador both less than 3 years of age, I don’t find the dog walk a mindful experience. Try it solo and you might find a completely different perspective.

The VBC can help develop your practice nature strategy, whether it’s time management strategies, people management requirements or other business development activities to help you see the wood from the trees. Drop us a line and you can have a free, confidential preliminary chat.

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