• Gordon MacLellan

Vitamin N for Nature

Updated: Sep 1, 2020

In “Last Child in the Woods”, Richard Louv wrote about “nature deficit disorder”. This wasn’t meant to be a medical diagnosis but a useful term to describe a situation that many of us find ourselves in….”Nature-de

ficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses”*

As people have come to appreciate during these difficult months, a walk in the “countryside”, or in a local park, or just working and being in a garden has become important: stepping out into the world around us reminds us that nature is everywhere, and that giving ourselves time to just enjoy being immersed in it is invaluable. Yes, it is good to be physically active and to walk with purpose and a bit of gusto, but it is also good to wander, to ramble, to be still, to pause and watch, savour the moment

There are various groups and organisations around the country who have picked up that “just go for a walk for the good of your health” banner and as lockdown eases (a bit) many are working hard to find safe ways of resuming those valuable experience. It is easy to just think “O, that’s just a sort of guided walk for people who can’t organise a walk themselves”. But a well-planned walk offers more than “just a walk”

A stream at Lightwood

Recently, I was in a distanced conversation with Nature4Health, a charity based in Nairn near Inverness. They offer an excellent example of the strength of a good walks programme, a programme that might not seem to be an obviously “CelebrationEarth” sort of event: these are not faith-based activities (but you can always bring your own faith!) nor explicitly “spiritual”. But they are about helping people explore the world around them and creating those opportunities to pause, to reflect and to share their feelings. That sense of building a personal emotional understanding brings their work firmly under the CelebrationEarth banner

Find out more:

Nature4Health: https://www.n4h.co.uk/

A film about N4H: https://youtu.be/2DPZ8jdVJJk

Walking for health nationally: https://www.walkingforhealth.org.uk/

Walking: https://www.ramblers.org.uk/

Searching: try “mindfulness walks (add your county or town name)” or look at your county Wildlife Trust (or start at the national umbrella body: https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/, or your local authority’s countryside ranger service (or National park, or AONB depending upon where you live)…

Nature 4 Health aims to help people connect with nature, each other and themselves. (Offering people the chance to) experience the mindful benefits of green and blue space and the fascinating species we share the planet with.

I was going to write their responses into an article but those answers to my questions tell the story for themselves….

a haymeadow wander in the Upper Dove Valley, Derbyshire

CE!: what do participants say about the effect of your activities upon their mental health/general wellbeing

N4H: After five years of developing and refining our ‘Nature Walks for Wellbeing’ (NWW) we carried out a piece of research in 2017 that aimed to understand more about how beneficial the sessions were. Participants noted a highly positive impact in relationships between service providers (NHS staff) and service users (patients) and this was backed up by other NHS clinicians and management who became supportive of NWW even though they had not been on one of the sessions. This suggests a lasting benefit in patients who attend NWW that can be noted by other clinicians. It was noted that “patients often say ‘what a great sleep I had that night after the walk’” and that many will settle better in the evening following a session as well as being more relaxed and displaying less anxiety. Appreciation of nature and the outdoors was also highlighted as a positive. The nature focus allowed a mindful ‘in the present moment’ approach that provided participants with immediate interest and even ‘distraction’ from challenges. Seven out of eight interviewees noted that their daily lives had improved, they looked forward to the sessions and they felt “refreshed, positive, independent, more aware, able to cope and fitter”.

‘I would have been in hospital longer if not on the walks’

‘I used to hate the outdoors until I started coming out on the walks, it’s given me a new lease of life. I live for a Thursday – the fresh air and the lovely company is priceless’

pause, look, appreciate

What NHS and professional staff think - Leaving the psychiatric facility behind and entering into a greenspace creates a new relationship dynamic between patient and hospital staff. ‘White coat syndrome’ is perhaps left behind and communication and understanding increased. Staff were able to bond more easily with patients and get to know them better and this was felt to continue even after returning to the hospital. It was also noted by all the group of health professionals that they themselves benefited from the sessions and indeed looked forward to Thursday afternoons as part of their own wellbeing enhancement.

turn a corner, open your eyes, who knows what tiny wonder might be waiting
Ivy-leaved toadflax

CE!: What sort of activities (if any!) do you build into a walk or other activity session that invite people to pause and reflect?

N4H: Our sessions always try to provide time to pause, focus and reflect. Participants are motivated to consider how any sensory experience makes them feel and think or if it brings out any emotions. Activities such as ‘sit spots’ allow people to pause, rest and ground themselves whilst experiencing their surrounds with all their senses. We try to encourage people to find their own places near to home where they can revisit regularly and enjoy and appreciate the changes as well as the constants. This is such a healing exercise and allows for contemplation. We encourage people to search for things themselves and bring them back to the group if appropriate and share any thoughts about them. A lovely exercise we have used, for example, is a fireside reflection with a cup of tea. Everybody chooses a 2p piece out of an old purse and is encouraged to think of something positive that they remember from the year on the coin and relate to the group if they are content to do that. Pausing and considering is also built into the social flapjack eating on every walk. Two mystery ingredients, different each week, are included and people are asked to mindfully focus on the flavours and textures and try to work out what they may be.

Storytelling is a regular activity and can captivate and provide opportunity for reflection.

We tend not to do any reflective writing with this group but it is something that we use with others who may feel more at ease with this and where we have the time to facilitate.

CE!: Are people receptive of both the general principle of your work and of activities that aren’t necessarily obvious “outdoor ones” eg do you build in any mindfulness or similar activities? I know "mindful" slips into your opening sentences - maybe a thought about how well people take to this and initial reservations?

Interestingly it has been noted that some participants switch off if they hear the word ‘mindfulness’ used as a label for any activity. This was related to us by some health professionals as well. From that perspective we don’t use the term but carry out mindfulness practices regularly within the sessions. Sit spots, as mentioned previously, just being in a place with no particular aim but to create awareness and sense what happens. We often use mindfulness movement practices and encourage breathing exercises in nature – using trees to do squats whilst feeling the bark and smelling the sap. Taking deep breaths and moving the tension out of shoulders etc. Anchoring attention is often enhanced in nature. Thoughts - the good, bad and ugly ones – will come but they can perhaps be more easily ushered away as nature provides great focus with little commitment to achieve anything.

Participants are often unaware that the activities and sessions can be good for their holistic wellbeing. They can see the physical benefits every time but less so the social benefits and that nature should help with their mental health seems a long shot to many. However, research and testimonials has shown that it really does work. We all need a good dose of vitamin Nature!

* Louv, Richard: Last Child in the Woods, Algonquin Books, 2005


With many thanks to Stephen and Ruaraidh from Nature4Health for their deep and considered comments

Images: all images are moments from local walks at one time or another c. G MacLellan

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