Talk of mental health and self care never seems to be too far away these days, and with good reason. While I would never presume to have any specialist knowledge, there appears to be a worrying epidemic of debilitating mental health issues affecting people in this country, from children to people in their twilight years. It’s not hard to see why. Modern society seems to constantly be telling us we are lacking in ways we sometimes don’t even understand: we feel like we are being pushed into a way of life with no option to say “Hang on: I don’t think I want this.” There’s pressure to keep up, to look a certain way, to make x amount of money, to own certain things, to be seen at certain places, to give your kids things you can’t really afford or don’t want to them to have. At the same time there are the age-old issues of bereavement, unemployment, relationship breakdown, illness, and loneliness. Add into the mix the worrying news we hear every day about the way humans behave to one another and other animals, the state of our politics and worry about the environment – well, no wonder people are unhappy. In fact it often feels like we have forgotten how to be happy when the opportunities present themselves. Maybe “happiness” is too ephemeral a word – maybe I mean “everyday contentment” instead. These are external factors of course; sometimes people are very unlucky and fall ill with depression or anxiety for no discernible reason.
For reasons I won’t go into here, it’s been a tricky year for me (British understatement – for “tricky” read “sad and anxiety-inducing”). For me personally I have found it so helpful and soothing to get outside and immerse myself in the outdoors. Watching animals and birds going about the business of living takes you out of your head for a while and into their world. It’s not just the wildlife, but as the days get longer, you can almost see the plants waking up and stretching. Yesterday afternoon I went for a wander – well, it was more of a march actually, given the temperature – with my camera and ended up at Trevaylor Woods which is near where I live. On the way, I passed clumps of snowdrops and primroses, and countless daffodils in the banks of the lane – most of them aren’t in bloom yet, but they will be soon. I find that taking binoculars or a camera with me gives me something to focus on while outside – if my head is full and whirling with worries, then concentrating on what I can see and hear and smell and touch is an amazing tonic. I find myself constantly trying to look at things from a different angle and perspective; noticing how light falls on moss or lichen, or the beauty of a stone wall or rusty gate, or an entire universe existing in the roots and bark of a fallen tree. Playing with the camera settings and finding new ways to take photos not only can increase skill levels (at present the bar is quite low – after all I am not an actual photographer with any training), but is also enthralling and a good way of problem solving without having to solve actual real problems. I was too late yesterday for really nice photos as the light was going, but I was quite pleased with the way the stream came out. Sometimes I just stop and breathe, and see how deep a breath I can take and what scents I can detect.
You might think “oh it’s alright for her to find going outside calming: I live in the middle of a city”. Yes, given that it’s nature and wildlife I love more than almost anything, then I am lucky in where I live. On the other hand, when I go and visit my nephews and niece in south east London, then there are other opportunities. Many of the UK’s cities have a wonderful variety of parks and urban nature reserves, and it’s in some of these I’ve had some equally memorable moments. It does help if you take a tame small child or toddler because their enthusiasm is so infectious. I remember minding my two year old nephew for the day, and both of us being entranced by the moorhens, Canada geese and squirrels of Peckham Rye park. Don’t get me started of what a novelty it is for someone from Not London to see actual parakeets flying around in the wild! I think the trick is, looking at “ordinary” things and trying to see them in a fresh way, and then it can hit you that, far from being ordinary, these birds or squirrels or ducks are beautiful. I was struck by the colours and sound of a small flock of starlings yesterday – that iridescent greeny purpley speckliness, and their whistles and chatterings really did sound like they were having a conversation.
I’ve never really been one for meditating and yoga and mindfulness and all that milarkey, though I can definitely see their benefits. However I do know that nature and wildlife is an amazing balm, and getting out there into it and living in the moment for a little while does me the world of good.