It’s been an interesting summer. The occasionally boiling hot and oppressive heat of June, followed by a surprising level of rain in July and an August that felt more like April than the closing days of summer. We had warmth, tropical showers and gloomy clouds reminding us of the approaching change of season. And that was all in one day.
Those of us who are based in the UK understand why we can be so preoccupied with the weather. You get up in the morning preparing for your daily dressing ceremony, see the sunshine and abandon the mac. Big mistake. By evening, you may need more than a light raincoat – a jumper and an umbrella would come in handy too.
So, with that in mind, it’s easy to see why some of us are tempted to stay close to home whenever possible. We might do little walks to the bus stop or the local shop but, since Covid, the wider adventures may require more thought and enthusiasm than we presently have.
I was recently discussing this with someone whose anxiety levels are so high they are finding it hard to leave the house. I notice this level of anxiety seems to have increased within the population as a whole and I have every sympathy. I, who should know better about what’s good for a person’s mental health, can often find an excuse for staying put and battening down the hatches.
That expression, by the way, is a naval term which refers to closing the hatches on a ship ahead of a storm, to give it the best chance of staying in one piece.
The phrase seems appropriate. We have had so many stormy moments in recent years and there doesn’t seem much calm on the horizon so far. It might be argued it would be sensible, in a way, if we did just stay at home, batten down the hatches and wait for the storm to pass.
At the risk of sounding counter-intuitive, may I suggest you resist the urge. You – I, we, they – need to get out there and reclaim our space within the natural world.
My friend was suffering from high anxiety and had reached the point where they were finding it hard to make decisions, I suggested a walk might help. A little one, close to home, but just to allow them to move out of their home safe space which seemed to be morphing from a carefully chosen comfort zone into a prison.
I suggested they might take with them a problem that they were having difficulty solving. The idea was not to create more angst by adding one problem to another (leaving the house) but to hold it in mind, in case there was room for reflection on the outing. I wondered if the two complications might even cancel themselves out in a strange sort of way. By concentrating on one, the other might fall back in importance and vice-versa. In reality, it was about allowing themselves to “let go” just a little.
My friend took a little convincing. Habits are easy to fall into but very much harder to break. We can find all sorts of excuses as to why we shouldn’t make a change, even when we suspect it might have outlived its initial usefulness. And so it was about going out.
I offered to try it out myself and report back. I had become a little complacent in my habits so I realised it might be a bit of a challenge for me too. We set a two-day deadline in which to report our findings, keeping it tight to avoid finding a reason for procrastination.
I didn’t plan what I was going to do or when so I made an impulsive decision which mean I left home with only the key to my front door, inappropriately dressed (it started to rain on my outing) and without the most comfortable shoes I would normally have chosen for a walk. That’s my fault. I expect no sympathy.
What I did find, despite my lack of preparedness, was what a difference there is between learning and doing, and doing and being.
My own question question, mentally prepared before I set off fell away effortlessly as I forgot to think about it and started to observe the wider world. I noticed the flowers, the smell of the lavender and the surprising amount of crab apple trees you can spot in what is the heart of the city. I also noticed the colour of the pavements as the rain fell on some slabs but not on others and how the dirt of some shop awnings became particularly clear as the rain drops fell.
And all the while, out of conscious thought, the knot in which my question had been firmly caught and held, was untangling and unravelling, giving me very small hints that there might be a solution, if I was only willing to allow the process to work by itself. I did not need to try.
She is a strong advocate of spending time outside. She says: “As far back as the Victorian era, doctors used to recommend walking as an antidote to anxiety and depression and clinical research now demonstrates that being out of doors and in contact with nature actively lowers blood pressure, reduces stress and increases our energy and immunity levels.
“This is a powerful argument for taking talking therapies outside the consulting room and into the natural world in order to improve and sustain both physical and psychological well-being.” Wise advice for both therapists and their clients.
An update on my friend, they also reported feeling better after the outing. I reminded them they needed to hold on to the memory of how they felt before, during and after, and to continue to practice. It’s not a quick fix and it requires effort. But, as with the learning of bad habits, good habits can also be learned. All we need to keep hold of is, by doing this, we can begin to reconnect with the healthy selves we once were, and would like to be again.
References used in Sue Sutcliffe’s Coaching Today article
Into the Forest: The art and science of forest bathing: Dr Quin-Li : Penguin Books 2018
The Lost Child in the Woods: Richard Louv, Atlantic Books, UK, 2010
Nature and Psyche: David Kidner, State of New York Press: 2001
The Natural Health Service: Isabel Hardman: Atlantic Books, 2020
The Forest School Association: www.forestschoolassociation.org.