This content mentions anxiety, which some people may find triggering.
Will Baldwin-Cantello (Interim Practice Leader Forest, WWF), who conceived of the 'Thriving with Nature' guide, tells you how this idea came about.
The feel of warm summer sunshine or cold water. The autumn rustle of leaves under foot. The taste of winter rain. The spring smell of wild garlic. These are some of the natural sensations we might look forward to during the four seasons. Did you know experiences like these can also support your mental health?
Today, I am delighted to celebrate the launch of a collaboration between WWF and the Mental Health Foundation that has been long in the making. We have worked together to produce the 'Thriving with Nature' guidebook as organisations but also as a group of individuals. You’ll see in the guide some personal stories from a few of us involved in making it.
The origin of the guidebook
The idea of the guide stems from a personal place, too.
A few years ago, I found myself, like many others, chasing my career while living in London. I was tired, stressed, anxious and rarely took time out to slow down. We were organising a wedding, commuting on busy trains for two hours each day, paying off debts and living in a flat surrounded on three sides by a railway line and two main roads.
Although I had much to be grateful for, I did not have the headspace to really appreciate and relish it.
And then, prompted by talking therapy, I remembered a different way.
I remembered something I had studied years before: the way a connection to nature can benefit your well-being. And I remembered the trips I used to take to the Lake District, to the Scottish Highlands, Snowdonia and elsewhere. Trips I didn’t have time or money for anymore – I thought – despite the fact that I worked in the environment sector.
The more I explored this, the more I realised how much was out there to enable us to access nature for our mental health. And I found an established and growing scientific evidence base showing how big and small ‘doses’ of nature could help reduce stress, anxiety, negative feelings and encourage more positive feelings. So, I got involved and set out to experience this first hand.
Rediscovering the benefits of nature
I took part in retreats organised by Change in Nature and Natural Change. Closer to home, I heard from family members how they found gardening, wild swimming, birdwatching and trail running to help with their own all round well-being.
I volunteered for the Wilderness Foundation, the Wildlife Trusts and Action for Conservation, and saw how their experiences in nature were helping people of all ages and backgrounds develop themselves and improve their mental and physical health. For some, that was in a small city nature reserve, for others it was in the wilds of Scotland and Wales.
I also started practicing mindfulness at this time. At first as a seated meditation focused on breathing, but increasingly I realised that nature itself provides a perfect alternative focal point.
As I took solo mindful walks, I realised there was far more to be seen and heard around me than I had ever noticed before. The fourth side of our block of flats actually backed onto a narrow nature reserve along a old docklands creek feeding into the Thames. I started exploring this more closely and enjoying the wetland birds, including a grey heron that frequented this tiny, graffitied spot. And a short train ride took me into bigger open spaces.
Sharing nature's benefits with others
This more mindful experience in nature led me to want to write, to describe and express what I had seen. This was therapeutic in itself.
I wanted to share this with others, so I started a creative writing blog and began running lunchtime mindfulness walks in the woods for colleagues. And this in turn meant people shared with me their own experiences and how it had helped them – perhaps improving their well-being on a given day specifically, or their connection to nature as part of an ongoing long-term recovery.
The guidebook can be a nudge to connect with nature
There are a tremendous set of organisations that offer more facilitated experiences, as one-offs or more likely an ongoing programme, as mentioned in the guide. But I felt there was something else that could help: something that might nudge those of us city living folks into finding a regular connection to nature ourselves, to maintain and support all of our mental health.
So, here came the guide 'Thriving with Nature'. It is freely available and has been produced, as we call it, as a ‘guide for everyone’. Anyone can pick it up and use it however suits them. It holds background information, practical ideas and, we hope, some inspiration to encourage its use. But the most important parts are the blank pages there for you to reflect on and express your experiences in nature in your own way.
There is no rocket science in here. For some folks, there will be familiar ground, while for others it may all be new. Either way, we all need reminding and a nudge on difficult days to get outdoors.
Unfortunately, for a surprising number of us, green spaces are not readily accessible, or we have become distanced from them. If this is you, I hope you are able to find a little sanctuary nearby that you may not have noticed before, or be inspired to venture further afield on a day when you feel able to.
A time to return to wildlife
This guide comes at a transformational time for us all. Our country is opening up slowly after the ‘lockdown’ period. Many of us have struggled with our mental health while separated from family and friends and limited in our movements. At the same time, there has been much discussion of the return of wildlife and our enjoyment of it. We now have an opportunity to start, carefully, enjoying time with loved ones again and get into the great outdoors more.
I hope this guide helps you on that journey.
It is important for all of us to strive for a new normal in which we can thrive with nature.