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How spending time in nature has helped my mental health

This week it is Mental Health Awareness Week and the theme chosen for this year is nature, and more specifically the importance of connecting with nature in keep us psychologically and physically healthy. In his blog, Matt O’Brien, Digital Marketing Manager, shares how spending time outdoors has helped him.

The benefits of spending time in the open air connecting with nature are well known. Exercising outside is good for the mind and the body. This has been brought into even sharper focus since the beginning of the first lockdown in March 2020. Just the other week the BBC ran a story about an Edinburgh widower who, struggling with mental health issues due to the isolation of lockdown, was prescribed that he join the Ramblers.

The mental health benefit of regular outdoor exercise and connecting with nature is something I have first-hand experience of. Since my late teens I have suffered from bouts of depression and anxiety. I have, at different points in my life, required the additional support of medication or talking therapies to help me manage. However, I can hand on heart say that the one thing that has had the most beneficial impact on my mental health has been regular walks exploring the hills and valleys of northern England.

My love of the outdoors started back in 2004 when I worked for an electronics company in Leeds. I spent my working day in a huge open plan office with no natural light and, due to a long commute, would spend much of the winter without seeing daylight. It wasn’t an environment conducive to good mental health. A friend at work asked me one day if I would like to join him and a couple of others in attempting the famous Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge walk.

As it happened the other two dropped out before we’d even started our first practice walk so it was left to just the two of us. Our first walks were aimed at exploring each of the Three Peaks individually and improving our fitness levels. Those first few months of walking were characterised by foul weather but also a real sense of adventure and freedom. By the time we successfully completed the Yorkshire Three Peaks in September 2004 we had both been bitten by the bug. My friend asking me to join him on that walk 17 years ago was transformative for me.

On Swirl How

In most day-to-day activities I find it difficult to concentrate and focus when it is quiet. I even have trouble sleeping when it is quiet. I tend to cover the lack of sound with background music and even listen to music on my headphones to help me get to sleep at night. I discovered that I didn’t need music to fill in the silence when out walking. Instead I ‘tuned in’ to the sounds of nature such as the wind blowing through the trees, the tinkling of a mountain stream, the crash of a waterfall or birdsong. Walking became a fully immersive experience in which, instead of struggling with negative thoughts, I was truly living in the present.

Soon I became intimately acquainted with the hills of the Yorkshire Dales and it didn’t take long for me to begin exploring the Lake District, Peak District, North Pennines and North York Moors. I quickly realised that I got the most enjoyment from climbing hills, both for the physical challenge but also for the thrill of a new panorama on each one – weather permitting of course! Each new area that I explored opened up a new world of beauty and interest and I wanted to capture as much of it as possible on camera.

Wild garlic, bluebells, mountain pansies, daffodils

Apart from a burgeoning interest in photography I also became interested in finding out more about all these amazing things I was seeing. I would return from walks and search online to identify a particular type of flower I’d found, or a species of butterfly or even an unusual mineral I’d come across. Wildflowers such as bluebells, primroses and mountain pansies soon became favourites. At the same time I was thrilled to encounter very rare species such as spring gentian and wild jacob’s ladder which only grow in very specific areas in England.

Red squirrel, shrew, red deer, highland cow

In terms of fauna I have many treasured encounters with wildlife. The ones that most quickly come to mind are my visits to see the red squirrel colony in the Snaizeholme valley near Wensleydale. At other times I have encountered deer, stoats, foxes and a host of smaller creatures including one very inquisitive shrew. The haunting call of the curlew is particularly atmospheric, especially when the hills are covered in fog. By contrast there are few things more relaxing than sitting on a quiet hill in the summer sun listening to the song of the skylark.

The changing seasons

As time went on I also became more attuned to the change of the seasons. Every season has its appeal for me. Although it has its challenges a winter’s walk in the snow is a real thrill. Spring is a glorious time of year, it sees the return of two of my favourite moorland birds, the curlew and the lapwing. It is also the time of year for wildflowers and every year in late April / early May I always make sure I find a good bluebell wood. Summer brings long days and in August the brown heather moors bloom into a spectacular purple. If I was to choose a favourite though it would have to be autumn when the leaves and bracken turn into a variety of golds, reds and browns.

The lockdowns and restrictions over the last year or so have been a challenge for many reasons but one positive has been that it has encouraged more and more people to explore their local countryside. The great thing is you don’t have to travel too far to enjoy nature. As many people have discovered there are fantastic pockets of countryside within easy reach of even the most congested cities.

Wensleydale view

I love the solitude of walking on the hills on my own but I also enjoy taking people out on walks and introducing them to the fantastic scenery in Yorkshire and the benefits of spending time outdoors.

One of the highlights of my career at Cygnet was when I helped plan and lead a charity walk on Ovenden Moor for service users and staff at Cygnet Hospital Bierley. Being able to access nature is especially important for individuals who are in services and who cannot enjoy the freedom to head out into the countryside whenever they want to. It is vitally important that our teams are able to provide walking groups and other outdoor activities such as cycling, fishing and day trips to beaches and wildlife parks to ensure that service users and residents also get to spend time in and enjoy the benefits of nature.

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