I think the connection between nature and mental health is under-utilised.
There are hundreds of studies out there looking at the proven positive effect time in and connection with nature has on our mental health, but I’ll be talking from a more holistic/ theorised place today.
I think we have learnt to see ourselves as separate from nature, but the truth is we are part of nature. We breathe the same air as all animals, given to us by trees and plants. We are connected to the same ground as all flowers and vegetables, all fruits and roots. We are nature. We’re nature with opposable thumbs. So of course climate change affects us – not only on an intellectually anxious level, but a deep intrinsically natural level. Of course a sunset or a flight of birds can inspire us on an instinctual level. We don’t need to completely understand it, define it – of course at a scientific level that’s useful. But on an emotional level? I think just leaning into that connection can help set us free.
The pace of the world we live in is in direct juxtaposition to nature. In the western world at least we run at what I think is an unattainable pace. The capitalistic society is intent on promoting not only individualism but also productivity. And we’ve learnt that productivity is a good word. The model citizen is a productive citizen – this really means blindly following the rules put upon us and always striving for more, at a faster rate. Not only does this harm us individually, but it is a driving cause behind the industries that are contributing most to climate change and destroying the nature we are so deeply connected with. So we are severed from the nature we are a part of, and told to keep busy enough that we never question the system we have become a part of; perhaps more importantly, in order to have the resources to survive we cannot question. We are placed in a deep survival mode, and often forced to be unaware of it.
The next logical step would be to assume that a person with a mental health issue is individually at fault. A weakness in the mind, a personal problem. It isolates the sufferer further and gives the rest of the world and excuse to keep going as is. The common narrative surrounding mental health awareness continues to ignore, on the whole, how much societal and economic factors are contributors and causes of mental illness – and by extension how a lack of connection with our roots in nature is a contributing factor. It should be made clear I am not advocating for full blown communism or anarchism or anything like that – it’s not like we haven’t seen ample issues when those structures have tried to be deployed in the past! In fact I have very little idea how to face these issues on a wider scale. But I know how to face them on a smaller scale; I know where to start (I think) and maybe that’s enough for now. To start, perhaps we look to the pace of nature; to the connection we inherently have (but so often ignore) with nature and our fellow beings.
Nature does not rush. It works at exactly the pace it needs to. In fact time itself is a structure we have projected onto the world to help us make sense of it – with very obvious reasons for helping us level our experience with each other. But what the construction of time can tell us is that though we may share hours between us, we can redesign what the contents of an hour should be. To explain: resting for an hour in the grass can be redefined to be just as important as furiously analysing stocks to meet a deadline. We can redefine what productivity means and looks like. Nature rests in winter – its pace changes to match the weather and the temperature, the presence of bees and hibernation of bears. And nature still survives. So by extension, perhaps we can learn to respect our rhythms. To work with the sun, to respect the rain, to rest when we are tired and flow when we are not. We are not machines – we do not have endless energy or an ability to always be running. We are not all designed to sleep and wake at exactly the same times each day. We are nature. Maybe we can learn from it.
Then of course there is the simple benefit of being among other nature. As mentioned countless studies – and poems and songs and personal experiences in each of our lives – record the boost to our mental health when among nature. Simply taking time to sit under a tree and imagine our own roots connecting, or take a walk in the woods (if that’s possible – everyone should have access to green spaces), or swim in a lake, run through a field, watch the flowers in the breeze or the sea crash to shore. Simply taking the time, even if it is only a minute, to start learning how to just be again – alongside our nature – can have a huge positive impact. It can calm us, make us feel more connected, happier, lighter.
Oh and by the way, this isn’t new or revolutionary. It’s been strategically forgotten and hidden. Native communities around the world have known this for such a long time; the colonial view of society and mental health has detached us from this. I’m not at all the person to be listening to on this perspective and this history – but here’s just one article written by Indigenous writer Edson Krenak Naknanuk from Brazil about connection with nature: https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/indigenous-peoples-are-essential-rights-nature
As the article explores, a view to see nature as a part of us – something in a reciprocal relationship – is important when looking to solving climate change too.
Remember – we all breathe the same air; we share a consciousness of being through nature. So why do we seek to intellectualise that connection always? How does that separate us from our connection with freedom of mental health? How can nature support us mentally, as a community and individuals?
Sending so much love and support to you all today xx
P.S. For a related science look at some of these topics I would recommend the book ‘Beyond Biocentrism’ by Robert Lanza and Bob Berman