Many studies are contributing to what we know regarding the effects of the outdoors. It’s an evolution in terms of therapeutic techniques, a counterbalance for mental health complaints, and a firm aid for general wellbeing. The results are heavily weighted towards positive factors, but how are we determining what is positive?
Hi, I’m Steph, and I work on the mental health team here at BDO. I have a background in mental health with psychotherapy qualifications to guide me. I am also a member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). These articles are my own thinking. Collectively, we use research to enhance our walks and develop the benefit to our attendees in the outdoors environment. The research available is vast from various schools of thought, and these short articles could not hope to provide professional direction, but my citing is chosen mindfully from academically accredited sources. For professional academia and guidance, references are included for further reading.
The art of kindness – Black Dog’s sniffing out the research!
“If kindness does not include yourself then it’s incomplete”
“Kindness begins with the understanding that we all struggle”
There’s no doubt that for many of us, these are stressful times. Chaos, separation, sadness and loss with lashings of uncertainty – a great recipe for stress. “Yummy!” Coping techniques built to counteract stress are learned in very early childhood, some we still use today by default, and frequently other options may be more beneficial. The most beneficial techniques are those which encourage us to consider in the here and now and allow us to make problem-solving choices, linking awareness to our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. If you are struggling with stress, Samaritans explore a great variety of stress combatting techniques here:
So, why are you starting this article on kindness with a focus on stress I hear you ask and what does this have to do with the outdoors? Well, I’m glad you asked! We will be delivering the outlines of our outdoor research with you in regular articles to come and before we move onward to the outdoors, it feels appropriate to address the current times – tough, stressful times, but we are in it together, we are still connected.
Through countless hours of personal therapy, I have learned that when I am stressed, I am not kind to myself. If I switch on my awareness, I notice my inner voice stating (whilst wagging its proverbial finger at me) “you should be able to cope with this” or “today was a feeble attempt, you could’ve done better”. Self-care is of upmost importance, but it’s ironic how unkind I can be to myself. Last week, I set myself a structure of days which I would go walking. I love the outdoors, the recognised benefits of being immersed in nature is growing in significance every day (hence my volunteering with BDO). I also understand the importance of self-care, and for me, structure never goes amiss either. I woke up on the Tuesday and I didn’t want to. Nope, not a want for a walk in me, even though I confidently knew I would feel better afterwards. I didn’t go.
For the rest of the day I noticed that wagging finger trying to make advancements on my mind. I felt that little mind-jacking cretin trying to tell me that I “should’ve gone out” and I “could’ve done better today, what a waste”. In my imagination, that wagging finger is like an overly aggressive parent nestled into my mind, constantly telling me all the “should” and “coulds” it can squeeze in… unhelpful right? Now, this might sound like the cheese has slid off my cracker but bear with me, there’s another person in there too. The other person is tiny, such a small, fragile voice who is guarded protectively by the parent… it’s little childlike me. The one who loves to play, is more impulsive than parent-me and frequently can be emotional (and a little irrational). Would I persistently criticise a small and fragile, real-life child with such unkindness? No! So why am I dishing out this very critical thinking to myself, what would it achieve? Would I speak to a friend in the same way – not if I wanted to retain that friendship!
Why didn’t I want to go out? Because it was not my day and we are all entitled to have off-days. I would be very cautious of the person who danced around like a ray of sunshine every minute of every day, I would probably wonder whether if the cheese had slid off their cracker too. To resolve the issue of kindness, I gently requested that the parent-me step aside so little-me could tell me what it wanted to say – “I don’t want to go, please no. The world feels… frightening today but I don’t know why”. Parent-me was trying to respond, probably just to move things along with something like “there’s nothing to be frightened of, you’re just being stupid!”. I stepped in to intersect the chaos of internal bickering with something else… “I hear you and that’s ok, we are allowed to feel like this and if we continue to feel like this then we will explore why, for today, this is enough. Let’s go sit in the garden”.
Now, the message here isn’t whether I should or shouldn’t be going out. I recognise that being outside would have provided me much benefit. Reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety (Beyer et. al. 2004). Attention restoration by minimising artificial stimulus (Kaplan and Kaplan 1989). Forest therapy, vitamin D, lower cortisol, heighten serotonin… the list goes on and on. The message is my response to that internal voice. Our kindness to ourselves, and at a time when stress is rife, it’s important that we look after ourselves.
Feelings can be tricky to recognise and express. Emotions are frequently hidden but why? It’s common that the reason is fear (Seltzer, L. 2011). Emotions however, are not a sign of weakness, neither are they unhealthy, quite the opposite. Allow yourself to feel the emotions. Embrace them – they’re a healthy sign that we are processing so we are able to move forward. Even machines stop for a rest whilst they are buffering!
Calibrating feelings… 25%
With regards to feelings, I take influence from Gestalt therapist Stefan Charidge.
Anger is healthy (it’s what we do with it that’s questionable) it tells us that something or someone (including ourselves) has broken one of our boundaries. “I can’t believe that person is in my 2m social distancing zone!” – you’re right to be angry, it’s a potential health threat. Acknowledge it, change it, and ask them to step back (but perhaps put the boxing gloves away)
Sadness lets us know we are not connected to someone or something in the way which we would like. It lets us know that we are needing something. Just like our tummy rumbling when we are hungry, our tears let us know that we are craving something too.
Fear – it tells us to be prepared and to make the unknown, known. I might lose loved ones, I might get sick, others might not adhere to the rules, there’s no end to this. Fear is based in the mind and needs data for us to try to resolve. (Overthinkers raise your glass and toast to that!). but fear is healthy – it tells us to be prepared and make the unknown known, we just need to assess and challenge the extent of the threat of the unknown.
Finally, joy, joy is healthy, it’s where self-esteem lives, and it tells us to have as much as we can handle
Have you ever seen the film “Inside Out”? #Disneyfans. Even without sadness, we cannot perform. We need every emotion so why deny its presence?
Above’s inspiration to join Disney and own that feeling… interpretive dance perhaps? 😉
I have spoken with many attendees over recent lockdown weeks and a variety of feelings are gathering. Fear and sadness from being disconnected from each other and the not knowing of when we will meet again. Anger for being denied access to our beloved outside space. It’s a hard time. You are not alone. We are all feeling it here at BDO too. Our aim is to support those in the outdoors. We are still here. We can still interact with you and we can still offer guidance on the outdoors, wherever you are able to explore. To those who are fearful, please be kind to yourself, perhaps explore a local, known area. To those who are sad for missing the connection – we are too, and we would love to hear from you, tell us you’re sad, it’s ok! Our social media accounts are still up and running. In every one of our walks, we observe attendees acting in an abundance of kindness and acceptance towards each other, it’s incredibly heartening. please ensure you are retuning this love and acceptance to yourselves.
I want to leave you with this thought. The Buddha teaches meditation, not as an act which will result in your coming through a spiritual portal, all shiny and new, but just to take time to observe. Next time you hear those berating messages, I invite you to think Buddha and observe them. Explore the feelings behind them. Acknowledge them. Challenge them. Ask yourself how to answer those messages in kindness and if something feels too much one day then so shall it be, leave it there as I will now.
“We’re ok now” From a series of cartoons I drew during therapy gone by.
Beyer, K. M. M., Kaltenbach, A., Szabo, A., Bogar, S., Nieto, F. J., and Malecki, K. M. (2014). Exposure to neighbourhood green space and mental health: Evidence from the survey of the health of Wisconsin. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 11, 3453–3472. doi: 10.3390/ijerph110303453
Charidge, S. (2020). The Penny Model. Tricorn Books. Portsmouth
Kaplan, R., and Kaplan, S. (1989). The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mind. (2020). How to manage stress. [accessed May 2020] Retrieved from https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/stress/what-is-stress/
Seltzer, L. F. (2011). Why we hide emotional pain. [accessed may 2020] Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/evolution-the-self/201109/why-we-hide-emotional-pain