Depression: How Nature Helps Me

In autumn 2011, I was off work with depression. My over-active mind was tormenting me at night and turning me into a zombie in the daytime. I found I needed to get out of the house as often as possible for a change of scenery, even if only for five or ten minutes.

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A positive focus

Taking my binoculars or my camera with me gave me an added focus (no pun intended) and purpose. One of the most helpful pieces of advice I got from my counselling was to find something I enjoyed doing – and to find time to do it. In my case, that was watching wildlife, especially birds. Getting out to do some birdwatching is now one of the first things I do if I feel stress building up, or if I can feel depression’s shadowy presence stalking me. It’s something I look forward to doing.

Healthy distraction

As well as the physical health benefits of regular fresh air and exercise, the distraction can give me a change of perspective.

I find my spirits can be lifted by the song of a robin, the bright colours of a yellowhammer, or the acrobatics of a sparrowhawk. That brief distraction can be enough to temporarily break a cycle of destructive thinking or an imaginary argument that’s been raging in my head.

I find that watching wildlife helps me to live in the present rather than dwelling on a past issue or worrying about something in the future.

There’s science behind this ‘nature is good for you’ stuff too. Research for Mind found that ecotherapy, which supports people to be active outdoors – can help to build our well-being and resilience.

Many other people recognise the benefits of nature. For example, Ian Young writes Anxious Birding, a blog about birdwatching and mental health, while Joe Harkness writes about Bird Therapy. Matt Merritt, whose book A Sky Full of Birds was published this spring, spoke in a Telegraph article about how birdwatching helped him through depression.

For Maddy Dilley, there’s one animal that has a particularly calming effect.

“I live in the countryside and have grown up watching foxes out the window, bats in the garden and various birds hopping around the trees,” says Maddy. “However I am always at my most relaxed when in the presence of hedgehogs.

“I put a mixture of hedgehog biscuits and meal worms in my garden each night (along with a shallow bowl of water) and if I’m having a bad day will sit outside at night to get my thoughts together. Often I will see a hedgehog or two scurrying around the garden and the effect is instant – for that moment I am totally calm. I can forget the worries of the day and focus on this little creature in front of me, the little snorting and crunching sounds, the swish of the grass as he rushes to the next handful of food. I’ve often considered opening a hedgehog rescue and giving back to them what they have given me.”

You can do it anywhere

Nature is everywhere. A trip to the coast or a nature reserve is great, but if I’m not feeling up to a big expedition, I can find wildlife on my doorstep. I can watch colourful goldfinches feeding in my garden. A short walk, even around town or an industrial estate, can bring brilliant wildlife experiences – maybe a glimpse of a fox, a dragonfly whizzing past, or swifts hurtling through the sky above us.

“Look up” is some wise advice I try to remember from David Lindo, the Urban Birder. When we’re in the midst of depression, it’s easy to spend our time lost in our thoughts and staring at the ground, but I find that lifting my eyes to the sky is a quick way to bring myself back into the real world.

Try it yourself

Here are some quick tips for getting the most out of nature:

You can do as much or as little as you want, but try not to do too much if you’re not feeling up to it. You’ll feel able to do more another time.

Watching wildlife is great for some ‘me time’ but it can also help to go with someone for company and to share the experience.

Try going to different places for a greater variety of wildlife.

Write what you see in a notebook. Your notes can help you to savour the moment and are a good reminder of where you’ve been and what you’ve done.

Take pictures. You don’t need a fancy camera. I use my mobile most of the time. It’s not easy to get great photos of animals, birds or insects, but it’s simple enough to get a snap of the landscape around you.

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