Green Health Week – the annual Scottish mental health and wellbeing campaign offers the perfect opportunity to reflect on the therapeutic effects of being in nature, writes Claire Williams.
For me, volunteering with NatureScot at Loch Leven National Nature Reserve has helped unearth a happier and healthier version of myself.
As a mature student pursuing a qualification to support a career change, coursework can be intense. Factor in work commitments and juggling family responsibilities, and weekly volunteering might have seemed a step too far. How wrong I was! Mental health research has identified five key ingredients which are supported by my belief that volunteering in nature can promote our health and wellbeing.
Ingredient 1: Connecting with others
Making time to connect with people around us improves our health. Building supportive social connections can be fun and enriching, and they’re essential for making us feel good.
Spending time with members of the volunteer group is always a tonic. We share similar ecological and conservation values, and a sense of community spirit and fun. I have had the pleasure of working alongside incredibly kind, compassionate, and determined volunteers from various walks of life. I have made new friends.
Ingredient 2. Be active
As well as helping to shift a few extra pounds, regular physical activity can help increase your sense of wellbeing and protect against depression, anxiety, and age-related cognitive decline. My wonderful interactions with fellow volunteers and the NatureScot staff – not to mention the stunning scenery and wildlife – lifts my mood for days.
Tasks like cutting a meadow and baling the grass are very physical activities but also require concentration, teamwork, and focused effort. Slowly my concerns melt away and I realise that I’m making a bale of hay for the first time! What a sense of achievement. It has certainly built my confidence, replacing negative thoughts (“I’m no good at doing anything practical”) with positive ones (“I have gained some good practical skills”).
Ingredient 3. Take notice… Be curious.
Slowing down the busy pace of the mind and focusing on self-awareness by ‘taking notice’ of your surroundings can have a positive impact on mental wellbeing.
The late economist and green revolutionist David Fleming spoke on the notion of an ‘encounter’ with nature. An encounter is what happens when you take the time to deeply observe and connect with your surroundings. It requires a respectful acknowledgement of the complexity of a life system without judgement, or a need to tame, control or understand it through logic. Last summer I had a meaningful encounter with a Common Hawker Dragonfly – the reserve’s gossamer jewels of the sky. The beautiful creature landed on a leaf stem in front of me. As I paused in awe to observe its beauty and elegance the world seemed to fall still. I was not alone in this reflective space, as the dragonfly began observing me back and for some seconds we were engaged in a silent conversation. Savouring moments like these can help you rediscover and strengthen your core values and a sense of appreciation of what matters most in your life.
Ingredient 4. Keep Learning.
Trying something new like volunteering for a cause close to your heart may help improve your confidence, give you something fun to look forward to, and keep you active. Research shows that continued learning throughout our lifetime can improve wellbeing and support our resilience. For me, volunteering re-invigorated my love of the outdoors and wild foraging and baking. Inspired by nature, I tried new recipes like hawthorn berry ketchup, wild garlic and parmesan scones, and rowan berry fruit rolls. Learning how to combine unique ingredients to create tasty treats is both challenging and fun. However, sometimes keeping things more traditional is often what’s needed too, such as a toffee apple cake for our Autumn BBQ get-together, which went down well!
Ingredient 5. Give to others.
The adage giving is good for you is not wrong. Even small acts of kindness may do wonders for your mental health and others. It is incredibly rewarding when we begin to see the impact of our efforts in the wider community. One such example is the Phoenix Hide at Loch Leven NNR, a stunning structure that has been “resurrected from the ashes” after fire damage. This has been the result of huge efforts from the volunteers, NatureScot staff, and others. To see the collective efforts culminate in a wonderful free space for all members of the community to enjoy really is inspiring and uplifting.
Green Health Week summed up.
Rather than add to the burden of life’s pressured timetable, volunteering rewards me with time to pause, breathe, and re-set my sometimes-neglected mental health – our local green places can be viewed as Our Natural Health Service, good for body and soul. Volunteering with NatureScot has provided me with the five ingredients to wellbeing, and each week I am able to attend I reap the benefits. And so can you!
Claire Williams is a volunteer at Loch Leven National Nature Reserve.