As we move into Autumn, with more of us working from home than ever before, and local lockdowns meaning that our usual Winter gatherings and indoor activities are being put on ice, Claire de Boursac, founder of Nature as Nurture and humanistic psychotherapist, shares her tips for a little nature-infused self-care to take us through the darker, cooler months ahead.
With the equinox now behind us we are undeniably in autumn with winter waiting in the wings. This is a time of year when we typically start turning inward and spending more and more time indoors, but connecting with nature, both inside and outside the home might help you stay happier and healthier until spring.
There is something deeply reassuring to me about the way the seasons follow each other, predictable markers of time passing and in an order that never changes. However, for most of us this autumn is not like all the others. In fact, this year has been anything but predictable. Although most kids had their ‘back to school’ experience in early September, many of us have not returned to the workplace, and if we have, it’s probably only part time. With local lockdowns also in the mix, working from home will likely be a feature of the months ahead.
Even pre-pandemic, I advocated for continuing to be outdoors and connecting with nature through the darker, cooler months as a way to support our mental and physical health. This year it feels particularly important as anxiety levels are understandably high and concerns about health are front of mind. As it’s something we Brits don’t do naturally, traditionally preferring to hunker down in our cosy homes or gather in crowded pubs with steamed-up windows, here is a little guidance on how to stay connected with nature for your wellbeing.
Why is connecting with nature good for us?
Connecting with nature has been shown to reduce many of our stress responses– lowering cortisol levels, reducing blood pressure and lowering heart rate. Scientists tell us the shades of green in nature, the repeating fractal patterns abundant in trees and plants and nature sounds (especially birdsong, running water and wind in the trees) have a direct and measurable soothing effect on our nervous system. Connecting with nature also impacts what’s going on in our brain, reducing the activity in areas linked to rumination and stimulating areas associated with empathy and creativity. Just 20 minutes in nature is enough to re-set us.
We know that stress can be a big factor in weakening our immune responses and compromising our physical and mental health so it’s worth taking steps to minimise it. In addition, the phytoncides (small airborne particles that form part of their defence system) released by trees have been shown to actually boost our immune system, stimulating natural killer (NK) cells which play a key role in fighting infection and disease.
Alongside the physiological aspects mentioned above, there is something a little harder to measure but which I believe is of great value during this time. Time in nature offers a break from the world of pandemic and politics and connects us to a side of life that is altogether more wholesome and dependable. There is something reassuring about seeing the flora and fauna around us carry on as normal. The fox, blackbird and oak tree have no concept of Coronavirus. I have personally found it refreshing and restful to tune into this world for relief from the news and, a healthy alternative to blobbing out to a box set and losing myself in the lives of fictional characters (which I also do from time to time).
When we’re outside regularly, we also see the passing of time and the changing of the seasons. The falling of the leaves, the shortening of the days and then, from 22nd December, the sun rising a little earlier and noticing the buds patiently waiting on the ends of the branches. The natural world sends us the message of ‘this too shall pass’ which can help us to navigate the challenging moments.
Boundaries and transitions
For most people, a key element of working from home has been the removal of the commute. I doubt many of my fellow Londoners are wistfully thinking about those good old days of being squashed so close to a stranger on the tube that they could identify the song playing on their headphones and smell the coffee this stranger had enjoyed before leaving the house. Unpleasant as it was, the commute provided a useful transition and boundary between work and home life.
There was concern among many employers that working from home would mean staff spent less time ‘at work’. The opposite turned out to be the case as people struggle to switch off and work bleeds into the evenings. This can negatively impact our health, disturb our sleep and actually makes us less productive.
- Give yourself a daily ‘commute’ which involves leaving the house and walking outside. Including greenery such as a park or countryside is ideal but even a brisk stroll around the block will do.
- Take some time to connect with nature at the start and end of each day- either during a walk, in your garden or even staring out of your window for 10-20 mins. You may want to include some of the sensory invitations listed below.
If something needs your creativity or focussed attention, you might benefit from a little nature connection before turning your hand to it. Environmental psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan developed what they call Attention Restoration Theory. They suggest that the way the brain processes nature is less demanding, less stressful and allows the mind relax and reset. Their research subjects had significantly better focus after time spent in the great outdoors.
There has been much research on the importance of spending time in natural light, showing it can help our health, focus and sleep. As the days shorten the window for this gets smaller so it’s helpful to commit to being out in the light as much as you can.
- Get out for a walk at lunchtime.
- If you have an errand to run, do it in the middle of the day when the light is strongest.
- Eat your lunch outside, even if it means wearing your coat and having a blanket over your knee.
- Position your work station near a window to maximise natural light.
You may need to adjust your lighting situation at home. I’ve always purposefully kept my living room lighting soft, as it’s a place designed for relaxation. Since lockdown, it is sometimes also my workspace and in order for my evening therapy clients to be able to see my face I’ve had to get a ‘daylight’ bulb for one of the lamps. It’s a bit harsh on the eye but it does the trick and it makes me feel more awake. Turning this lamp off and allowing the room to sink into the softer lighting is another part of my transition from being ‘on duty’ to ‘off duty’
We are in uncertain and unfamiliar times and understandably, many people are feeling anxious. One of the best counters to anxiety is to bring our attention into the present moment and nature connection practices are wonderful for this. Instead of simply asking our mind not to wander as we do in conventional mindfulness, we can invite our attention to land on the sights, sounds, smells of the moment. If you are smelling a flower, listening to the wind in the trees or marvelling at the intricate patterning on an autumn leaf, you are necessarily in the present.
Some simple invitations to come into the present through your senses, these can be used to make the most of your commute, your lunchbreak or any time you’re outside:
- Go into nature. Notice 4 things in nature you can see, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can feel and 1 thing you can smell. If there is something edible nearby and you are confident it’s safe to do so, include taste. Take your time with each sense and when you’re done, notice how you feel.
- Take yourself to somewhere in nature. With a spirit of curiosity, explore a small area for 10 minutes through all your senses. Be playful. What’s it like to touch the bark of a tree with your back of your hand or even your cheek? Are all the trees the same temperature? Take time to notice all the tiny details of a leaf, is it different on the top and underside?
- Feel the weather. Our skin is our largest sensory organ. Notice how the weather feels on your skin, perhaps the temperature of the air, any movement from a breeze, the warmth of the sun. If it’s raining, hold out your hand.
- Colour hunt. A fun way to keep your mind in the present when you’re out for a walk is to look for things of a certain colour.
It might seem sensible to move your social life back on-screen now the warm sun has retreated but I’d nudge you to keep some of it ‘real’ (as much as Government guidelines allow). Zoom has been a wonderful way to stay connected, but it’s not the same as being in person, sharing space and time with those we love. Our nervous systems ‘co-regulate’ when we are present with those we care about and most of us will feel more comfortable to talk about our more personal issues face to face, which can help reduce the feeling of stress or loneliness.
- Have catch up walks with friends and colleagues.
- If you have a garden, consider gathering friends around a fire for a mug of something warming, perhaps even a marshmallow or two (in line with social distancing guidelines).
There is truth in the saying ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing’. My Scandinavian and Canadian friends smirk at my winter wardrobe. It would not suffice in the -20°C of their lands but I do love my warm woolly polo necks and my thick winter trousers. My other favourite accessories are my feather-light foldable foam seat pad, which insulates me from damp grass and chilly benches. In the depths of winter I have been known on occasion to bring my hot water bottle with me! A decent flask is another winter must-have.
For more tips on seasonal self-care see Claire’s articles:
Nature as Nurture’s Instagram provides regular tips, encouragement and nature-connection challenges to help keep you well this winter.