I spent many amazing hours as a child in nature. Over the years, I have steadily become an increasingly indoors person. It creeps up slowly – swapping school for an office, then devoting home time to cleaning a house and cooking meals, not to mention taking care of the children. During this period the internet came along. Initially access was limited because we had to pay for every minute we were online, but with data packages a whole new opportunity for endlessly finding new information and entertainment opened up. Accessing the internet away from home using smartphones and the arrival of television on-demand, instead of only watching programmes when they were scheduled, have changed our lives dramatically. I have been sucked in, like so many others, to the point where I was spending the best part of 11 hours or more in front of a screen. Even my lunch break was spent browsing the internet or catching up with the news. Increasingly, I felt my ability to tolerate having nothing to do diminish – suddenly I became bored and restless more easily. I am easily distracted by things popping up on the screen or notifications pinging. It seems like my ability to concentrate on one task has become somewhat impaired. It feels quite hard to shake as well. I have tried apps that limit my smartphone use, but a sense of deprivation and disconnection eats away at me. A more successful approach has been to fill my time with other things (including mindfulness). It is easy to understand why it is referred to as the “attention economy”, where various providers of information and entertainment are competing for our attention. It also seems that the reason these devices are so effective at getting us to react to them is deliberate.
I had two fairly big wake-up calls, which made me realise that nature is absolutely key to my well-being, especially my mental health. After my second daughter was born, her hourly feeding patterns were such that I was unable to go very far from home without needing to stop and feed her. I didn’t feel comfortable breastfeeding outside the house, so we stayed indoors. Very quickly, I started to become tearful and depressed. I felt that I really needed to widen our horizons, so I started walking with her on a half hour loop through our local park along the river. It made a huge difference – getting out of the house, seeing the light dancing on the water, feeling the wind on my face, watching the leaves dance and hearing the birds sing. I had not actively sought nature – I just felt that we needed some fresh air. However I noticed that the tearfulness and sense of isolation lifted really quickly.
The next wake-up call was a year later when I was forced to spend a week in hospital. I struggled to keep my anxiety and depression in check as the week went on, not helped at all by lack of sleep. The bed was in the middle of the ward with no windows. Towards the end of the week I was able to look out of the windows at the trees nearby. That lifted my mood and my sense of resilience hugely. These days, I make a point of spending time outdoors several times a week, whether it is running or cycling, gardening, practising natural mindfulness or walking around taking photos of nature. I have come to regard it as an essential element of staying well. So when a sprained ankle once again limited my range, I made sure I spent time just stepping out of the door and looking at the sky, watching the weather or the stars, or listening to the birds.
What I have learned is that it is best to start small – it is much easier to do something simple like trying to take a nature photograph every day for a month or observing the changing phases of the moon each day (if the cloud cover permits it or looking at the different cloud types each day if not). I have experienced awe and wonder from a simple leaf – you really do not have to even go outside to experience nature connection, although it does make it easier. Just a short walk in a space with plants is beneficial. Then you can build from there. The other thing I have learned is to embrace the weather – don’t let the rain stop you. Smelling the earth after the rain or watching the raindrops in puddles or listening to the sound of the rain – they are all simple activities, but are really worthwhile for switching off that constant problem-solving, doing bit of the brain.
Other tactics for achieving some balance in our digital lives and a bit of respite for our tired brains include:
- Holding meetings outdoors, walking meetings etc.
- Including some nature (plants, views from windows, nature photos as screensavers etc) in our office spaces – even these small measures have been shown to have a beneficial effect, for example in hospital patients.
- Taking even as little as 5 minutes at lunch to wander outside and just notice the wider natural world (birds, sky, trees).
- Making time for longer spells in nature – ideally really connecting with the natural world (e.g. through mindful walking, gardening, volunteering with a conservation project, taking a holiday in a wild place, camping etc) a few times a year.