Combating Anxiety Through Contact With Nature

Nature’s remedy to find calmness and peace

I still remember when Netflix premiered the film Pandemic. It was January 2020 and at the time, Coronavirus was still white-noise-news coming from China. I remember flicking through the TV channels and thinking - “Imagine if something like this were to happen!”. I quickly shut this thought at the back of my mind and went about my day. A few months later, there I was, watching coronavirus fill the gap between the surreal and reality.

The past few years have been interesting times. Whilst the pandemic seems to be dying down, the pressure on our everyday lives isn’t decreasing. The loom of climate change and, more recently, the Ukrainian war are significant contributors. Living at such unprecedented times is causing anxiety levels to skyrocket across the world. In the UK alone, according to the Office for National Statistics, the number of people reporting feeling anxious or depressed rose to 39% in 2020, up from 19% in the last quarter of 2019.

Dealing with anxiety can be challenging. If like me, you are someone who cares deeply about our world and its inhabitants, it can be difficult to cope. Especially now that world events are shaking our sense of security and casting shadows upon our futures. But is there a way to deal with these challenges, without losing our well-being? The answer is YES.

I spent the past 14 years - as Brene’ Brown would put it - “digging deep”, to understand emotions, physical, mental and spiritual well-being. As a result, I have developed strategies to train my mind away from negative thinking and anxiety, and towards positivity and happiness. In this article, I will focus on how we can manage anxiety through contact with nature.

Am I Stressed or Anxious?

I suffered from anxiety for many years. I thus made it made my personal goal to understand it and find ways to overcome it. Before we begin, we first must address the difference between stress and anxiety. Although they are often interlinked, they are quite different in nature.

Anxiety is an emotion that causes various degrees of distress, worry, fear or negative thoughts and physical sensations. These can be mild or severe. Conversely, whilst the physical sensations might be similar, stress is a natural reaction to things that require attention or action. Stress has a positive side to it, as it often acts as a ‘motivator’ to get us going. When stress levels become too high, we can manage them by doing sports, meditating, and taking time out for ourselves.

However, when it comes to anxiety, things can be more challenging. This is because anxiety comes from within and it is linked to fears or worries which we can’t release as easily. As well as this, anxiety often perseveres after stressful events have passed. This is the case with many who are still suffering from pandemic-related anxiety. The good news is, that whether we are suffering from stress or anxiety, the first step to healing ourselves is awareness. Once we become aware we are not feeling as well as we’d like to, it is much easier to take action and change.

When it comes to anxiety, I found that calming the mind and gently training our brain away from negative thoughts is key. As I often say, the brain is like a muscle. It ‘learns’ certain thoughts and states of beings. It then repeats certain thought patterns, often as an automatic response. By gently shifting our thoughts when we notice we are becoming anxious (or are already feeling anxious) we train ourselves to practice positive thinking, thus breaking what I call the negative thinking circuit. It is up to us to train our brain (and therefore our mind) to think positive thoughts, which, in turn, lead to positive emotions.

So How Can Nature Help With Anxiety?

As I spent time looking for ways to heal my anxiety, I felt instinctively drawn to spend time in green spaces. I quickly realised just how much better I felt even after 10 or 15 minutes. I thus discovered nature is a fast-acting ‘medicine’ to combat anxiety.

Immersion into nature is currently attracting great interest from scientists around the world, who are trying to understand nature’s healing powers. This interest was sparked by observing how people found relief from self-isolation during the pandemic by spending time in local parks and green spaces. The healing relationship between man and nature, however, dates back millions of years. This is because, throughout evolution, mankind relied on nature for food, water, shelter and medicine. Nature acts as an ‘ancestral call’, it reminds us of where we come from and gives us a sense of ‘safety’. As Louise Delagran, of the University of Minnesota, puts it: “We are genetically programmed to find trees, plants, water, and other nature elements engrossing, we are absorbed by nature scenes and distracted from our pain and discomfort.”

But is it just about spending time in nature? And what if we live far from any green spaces? The answer to the first question is yes. It doesn’t matter where, as long as it is a place where we feel good and safe. As little as 10 minutes are enough to reduce the production of stress hormones and lower blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension. Contact with nature also has positive cognitive effects, including increased concentration and attentiveness. However, if green spaces aren’t available, even imagining or viewing images of nature can be powerful in obtaining the same soothing effects.

From Theory to Practice

Now that we have an understanding of how nature can help with anxiety, we can look at practical ways to bring this into practice. I will look at 2 ways to lower anxiety through immersion in nature and give 2 effective methods to employ when nature isn’t available. These practices are specifically designed to break the circuit of anxiety by shifting the focus to nature, which in itself significantly enhances the positive benefits of each practice. Taking time every day to practice positive thoughts through contact with nature, trains our brain to replace repetitive negative thoughts with gentler, more positive ones. These exercises are also powerful to help us take control of our minds and our emotions, by way of consciously deciding to shift away from negativity, even if it is just for a few moments at a time.

When nature is at your doorstep

1. Mindful walking

This practice is particularly useful to bring our attention to the present moment, which in turn shifts us away from thinking about the past, or worrying about the future.

How it works: Set 20/30 minutes aside as often as you can to practice mindful walking in nature. Pick your favourite park/nature before you start, and prepare yourself to enjoy a mindful walk. You are going to focus on your breath, where you place your steps, and your physical sensations. Wear comfortable clothing, leave your phone at home or make sure you won’t be disturbed.

The Practice: Begin your walk by focussing on your breath, feel the air inflating your lungs and then feel it going out. If your mind wanders off, gently bring it back to your breath. Once a few minutes have passed, bring your attention to your steps. Focus on where you are placing your feet and observe the different surfaces. Make a mental note of how they look, and how they feel under your feet. Do this for a few more minutes and then bring your attention to the rest of your body. Feel the air on your face, and pay attention to any smells, any sounds, any other physical sensations or perceptions. Again, if your mind wanders off, bring it back to your breath and then start over. Conclude your walk by mentally noting all the things that caught your eye and attention.

2. Gazing

This practice is particularly powerful to cut the ‘circuit’ of anxiety as it drastically shifts our attention away from what is causing us to feel anxious.

How it works: Gazing is a simple practice that can be employed anywhere where there is greenery or other natural elements. It involves sitting or standing before a tree, a flower, a landscape, and focussing all our attention on it. This can be incorporated into mindful walking.

The Practice: Find a tree, a flower or a landscape that attracts your attention. There must be enough space to sit or stand without being disturbed. Begin by focussing your eyes on the object of your choice. Let your eyes lose focus slightly as you gaze at the object. Now bring yourself back and begin to notice its features. How tall is it? What about the colour…and so on. List all the reasons why you like this particular flower, tree or landscape. Once you feel you have nothing else more to add, you can move on to find another element to observe.

And when nature isn’t available

1. Imagine a tree on a hill

This practice is perfect to break the circuit of anxiety, similarly to ‘Gazing’.

How it works: This practice is very simple and can be employed wherever we are and regardless of our environment. It involves taking a few moments or minutes to imagine a tree and its surroundings.

The Practice: Whether you are sitting at your desk, in bed, waiting at the bus stop, take a few seconds, or minutes to imagine a beautiful tree on a hill. Take pleasure in creating this tree just the way you like it. Choose the colour, the type of bark, and the shape. Take time to enjoy the process of creation. Now, begin to imagine the tree’s surroundings. What kind of hill is the tree standing on? Is it in the middle of a forest? Take more time to enjoy imagining the landscape. Now, take a few more seconds to observe your creation. Give yourself a few moments to notice just how good it feels.

2. Paint or draw a landscape

This practice helps us to create a connection with nature, even when nature isn’t available. Similarly to mindful walking, it helps us to be in the present moment, and fully focus on what we are doing.

How it works: All you need is some paper and a pencil. If you have coloured pencils, watercolour or any other type of painting material, even better. This practice involves painting or drawing a natural landscape of your choosing. You don’t have to be a practised artist. This is about you getting your creative juices flowing, you won’t have to show your art to anyone.

The Practice: Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Now, imagine a landscape. Let it come to you and spend some time observing it. Are there trees? Are there flowers? Now, once you feel you have observed enough, it’s time to start drawing or painting. Remember there is no right or wrong. This is about letting yourself experience and capture the beautiful landscape you have imagined. If your mind wanders off, simply bring it back to your artwork. Once you feel you have completed your artwork, spend some time gazing at your work, before going on with your day.

One Final Note - Don’t Be Alone With Your Thoughts

Nature is truly wonderful and I personally feel so grateful for the bountiful beauty that surrounds us. Discovering nature’s healing powers has changed my life and I hope this little article will serve as inspiration for anyone who is working to overcome anxiety. There is no right or wrong way to practice contact with nature. The techniques I have developed help to use connection to bring calmness and peace, which in turn promotes positive emotions, but it’s entirely up to you how to practice. It is all about finding your own balance and finding out what works for you. And lastly, if the anxiety or stress levels are too high, do speak to a friend, a family member, a life coach or a counsellor. Don’t be alone with your thoughts.

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