The view from the olive tree: ecotherapy for better mental health

The dark summer

This summer I’ve discovered how a family going through emotional stress can be healed by their garden space. I need to be matter-of-fact about the next bit as it is not the focus of this piece but is necessary for the overall content and is the reason this blog has been quiet for a while (i.e. this is tough for me to write). Early in the summer, I miscarried at 10 weeks pregnant and then my son had repeated monthly hospital visits for his ongoing health condition. It was a hard summer: grief, sadness, guilt, worry, sleep deprivation, and ill-health all took their toll.  My mental health suffered and I experienced depression for the first time in years, although mercifully it was not as bad or as prolonged as I anticipated given what we were going through. With the love, support, and nurture of close family and friends, we came back to ourselves, carrying on as we simply had to do. There was no other choice. Thankfully, our garden has been an uplifting contant for my husband, son and I throughout what I think of currently as the darkest summer. The role our garden played in our recovery is akin to that of a dear friend – I don’t think we would be in such good shape now if we hadn’t had it there for us. That is the focus of this post, considering ecotherapy for better mental health.

We’d been encouraging wildlife into the garden over Winter and Spring (thanks to the fantastic birdfeeder Haith’s kindly gifted to us – see review coming soon). We couldn’t yet add plants as we planned to have the whole garden landscaped: lawn leveled, retaining walls with toddler-proof screening, plus a series of raised beds. This glorious work took place in late Spring, so it was as if the space was prepared for us, ready for us to fall into when the tough times arrived.

 

That’s essentially what we did. Where previously we had an extended building site in the garden, utterly unsafe for an increasingly independent and strong-willed toddler, we now had a sanctuary of green that was safe and welcoming. The planting came later in the summer; despite the empty beds, we still had my beloved roses, the fig, olive and apricot trees, plus I got stuck into growing some pumpkins – great for covering up unprepared beds it turns out! We would play football together, lie on the soft new grass and watch the clouds scud by, splash in the paddling pool on those balmy days, and water everything in sight (Archie’s chief interest and therefore responsibility!). I’d once considered taking the olive tree out but after some hefty pruning to open up the leaf ball, it suddenly became a beautiful and necessary part of the garden ‘room’. I recall one warm early evening sat on the new raised bed wall with my back pressed firmly against its trunk, so grateful for the support and shelter it was giving me. I envisioned the roots spread deep beneath me and the branches reaching up and over me, as if drawing me into its protection. That moment gave me a sense of connection to the natural world around me and comforting spiritual reassurance. I didn’t feel quite so alone, I could sense the bigger picture of my life returning.

Planting the beds was my favorite part, one I planned and anticipated for weeks. We had time off and, mercifully, some good weather. I’m no professional garden designer but planning and buying plants for a bed is possibly one of my favorite things to do. I thought about interest throughout the seasons, scent, flower and foliage colour, pollinators, safety for toddlers, and generally what I found beautiful. I’d also nurtured a passionflower from seed so I planned carefully where this little baby of mine would go. I’d also been given a beautiful sculpture of the Buddha to place somewhere that could be seen from both house and garden; a nice reminder to be mindful of the here and now, and all the wonderful things we have to be grateful for despite the challenges that life sometimes lays at our feet.

Almost every day we would be out there as a family, pottering, playing, and reconnecting with the simple joy of life, slowly releasing sadness, fear, bitterness and the toxic physical effects of those emotions. The garden helped me reconnect with my heart and trust that all would be well again, in time.

Ecotherapy for better mental health

It is well known that gardening can improve mental health, particularly depression and anxiety. Recently, GPs in Shetland have been enabled to prescribe ‘nature prescriptions’ to help reduce anxiety, blood pressure, and increase happiness. According to the mental health charity Mind, ecotherapy is a range of nature-based activities that can support your mental wellbeing. See their helpful leaflet here. Ecotherapy can take so many different forms – it’s simply about finding ways that work for you to have some contact and interaction with natural things. Like nurturing a garden, a window box, or even some nice house plants. Doing a nature craft workshop, collecting some leaves, making a collage. Whatever you have the space and time for. Start small and work up – it can be so satisfying to see how far you’ve come. It is something you can do on your own, with family or friends, or with a local community group. Check out the following links if you would like to learn more about the beneficial effects of gardening and/or ecotherapy.

Gardening as a mental health intervention: a review (Clatworthy et al., 2013) – key findings include that gardening interventions significantly reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, and significantly increased self-esteem and attentional capacity.

RSPB article: Nature being prescribed to help health and wellbeing also reported in The Guardian (2018)

Mind: Nature and mental health (2015)

Outdoor Mama to relaxed Mama – JD Williams review

I had a request to review some outdoor clothing from JD Williams, something I’m very happy to do as I’m always keen to know good options that help us get outdoors easily and comfortably. Being comfortable and happy outside gives us a better experience – keeping us WILD, HAPPY, and WELL! I chose a good quality jacket and a pair of comfy joggers – both of which I could foresee getting a lot of use out of.

Here’s the link to all the options:

http://www.jdwilliams.co.uk/shop/womens/sports-leisure/_/N-1ytvx05/products/show.action

Archie in I enjoying a walk at our local National Trust property, Tyntesfield. Me enjoying my Snowdonia 3-in-1 jacket!
Archie and I enjoying a walk at our local National Trust property, Tyntesfield. Me enjoying my Snowdonia 3-in-1 jacket! How nicely does it go with my gorgeous Joules wellies?

Snowdonia 3-in-1 jacket, in cobalt

I chose this because I was considering buying something like this anyway, so the approach was actually extremely well timed for me (thank you, JD Williams)! I already have a thick winter coat (by Berghaus, I adore it) but this is often too warm, especially when I’m taking little Archie out. Running around after him, carrying him, etc, always seems to keep me pretty warm. So I wanted something a bit more light-weight but that was still waterproof and versatile. My Berghaus coat is quite smart too so I wanted something I felt good in down town as well as in a forest or up a hill. I also needed one that came down below my bottom, to keep warm the bits that ALWAYS get cold! As a Mama: pockets, pockets, pockets! Enough said. The Snowdonia 3-in-1 jacket appeared to fit the bill perfectly!

There are multiple options on the JD Williams website for different colours, all the same price (£85). I went for cobalt as being a dark brunette, bright blue suits me and I love bright colours 🙂 It’s great as it has a removable fleece jacket that attaches inside a waterproof outer layer, both with zips and pockets. Ahh the pockets… zipped pockets in the outer waterproof layer plus a handy zipped breast pocket, pockets in the fleece (although not zippy). These include handy waist-level inner pockets for stuffing tissues, pinecones (from the toddler…), etc. The inner fleece easily unzips to be removed. It’s held in place by zips with the outer layer plus poppers on loops at the cuffs to hold the sleeves in place. This bit kind of works but the fleece sleeves do have a tendency to come out further than the waterproof layer and I quite often find myself fumbling with hands stuck half in-half out…a bit annoying but not a deal-breaker.

Size-wise, I ordered a 10 as that’s my usual. As I wanted this for light wear I figured I wouldn’t be wearing big jumpers underneath so didn’t need to consider a larger size. This works well – there’s definitely no room for a thick jumper underneath (ahem!) and especially so on the arms. My arms aren’t skinny but they’re certainly not well-built and the sleeves are fairly snug. The jacket fits well and has a nice line: what with the slender sleeves and the drawstring waist, I feel confident that I look a good shape 🙂

There's no fun like snow fun!
There’s no fun like snow fun!

Here’s the product description from the website:

This jacket features two jackets in one and lots more! With an outer waterproof coated membrane to keep you dry, and a detachable fleece inner – if you’re too warm, just remove! Internal drawcord for getting a comfortable shape and adjustable cuffs for additional protection. Peaked hood with drawcords to adjust. This coat has it all!
  • Machine washable.
  • Polyamide. Fleece: Polyester. Chinguard: Polyester. Lining: Polyester.
  • Product available in sizes: 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, 30, 32

Value straight-leg joggers, in black

I adore my slouchy, comfy joggers… most nights when I get home from work I’m straight into these to mooch around the house, play and snuggle with Archie, and chill on the sofa before bed. I’m also a keen yogi so need a steady supply of trousers like this on hand. I got these as, honestly, I wanted to test out whether a cheap option would be any good.

These are only £14 so a snip, and I’m happy to say they are great, if you want stretchy, comfy joggers with a neat waistband. They are fairly wide-legged, more so than I expected, and they’re generally larger than I’d anticipated – again I ordered a size 10 but these are more like a 12, compared to the sizing of the Snowdonia jacket. This isn’t a problem though, they’re extremely comfortable and I happily yoga in them but they’re not as flattering as I’d expected.

I’ll admit I haven’t worn these outdoors yet but it has been rather chilly out there since I got these, so that’s hardly surprising! However, as they are just sooo comfortable, I can see myself wearing them for yoga in the garden or forest walks with Archie when the weather warms. They’re so cheap and simple fabric, I don’t mind getting them dirty and they wash well.

Snapped having a cheeky cuppa on the deck in my super comfy joggers!
Snapped having a cheeky cuppa on the deck in my super comfy joggers!

Here’s the product description from the website:

These straight-leg jogging bottoms are perfect to wear around the house. Designed with a flat-fronted waistband for extra comfort, the comfortable fabric makes these ideal for your leisurewear wardrobe. Available in multiple lengths and colours, there is something to suit your every need!
  • Regular – to fit inside leg 29in/74cm.
  • Machine washable.
  • 95% Cotton, 5% Elastane.
  • Product available in sizes: 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, 30, 32
  • Available in: Black

If you want to check out JD Williams’ outdoor clothing options check out this link and go get yourselves confident, comfortable and cozy outdoors!

Ta ta for now,

Nina

30 Days Wild: Days 21 to 30 – baby in hospital

Absence

It has been along time since I last posted, I have missed writing. However, as you’ll see below, we have had a bit of a tough time and frankly, I have prioritised spending time with our little boy Archie. Sometimes, time and love are the only things you can focus on.

In hospital

It’s summer time and warm so you don’t expect to catch colds, let alone end up with baby in hospital with a cold for the third time in three months. Archie got bronchiolitis for the third time from a common cold and needed hospitalization for the third time. Anyone who has been in hospital even once with baby will know how harrowing it can be and this being the third time Jon and I felt ourselves being stretched thin emotionally. However, having been there before we were more prepared: we knew when to go, what to pack, and to an extent, what we should expect. Most importantly, we now knew how we had to care for ourselves during the experience so we could be our best for poor little Archie.

Archie in hospital
Archie in Bristol Children’s Hospital

Sharing the load

Last time we were in hospital for five nights. I stayed with Archie for the first four nights but I was so obliterated by lack of sleep and stress that when we knew we’d be in a fifth, Jon stayed with him and I went home to get some reasonable rest. This time we agreed we’d alternate staying in with him so we both could remain as strong as possible. This worked really well and I think helped show Archie that both his parents are there for him always, and reinforced that Daddy can provide snuggly comfort similar to Mummy, which is never a bad thing.

Cowboy Archie in hospital
He wears it well…

My mum came up to stay with us from Cornwall as soon as she knew Archie was ill which really helped me stay strong and provided some much needed practical assistance with things like meals. Being in hospital can prove to be extremely expensive when you’re only able to buy yourself ready meals. Her being with us also gave me more of a reason to get out and get fresh air. This, I have discovered, is SO INCREDIBLY important for my mental wellbeing when in hospital. Being part of 30 Days Wild, I did my best to seek out any form of nature that I could focus on and connect with, however seemingly insignificant, as I knew that it WOULD help me stay strong for my baby boy. This was my ultimate goal.

St. James Park is a small urban park in the center of the city. I'd walked past it many times yet I don't recall ever having visited. It gave us some much-needed green respite from the endless grey and clamour of hospital and city.
St. James Park is a small urban park in the center of the city. I’d walked past it many times yet I don’t recall ever having visited. It gave us some much-needed green respite from the endless grey and clamour of hospital and city.
A beautiful patch of midsummer colour outside St. James' Priory refreshes the eye of the passerby, if they should look up.
A beautiful patch of midsummer colour outside St. James’ Priory refreshes the eye of the passerby, if they should look up.

The 30 Days Wild Community

The day we were in A&E when we first arrived at the hospital with Archie, I went out to get a breath and phone my mum. In the midst of the concrete cloisters of the hospital ambulance bays I found a couple of thin trees and some bamboo so I attached myself to them, trying to block out the sense of grey and crisis around me. I took a picture and added it to the 30 Days Wild Facebook group that I’d joined, writing a little about what was going on. Over the course of the next few days, we were utterly overwhelmed by the support, and kindness expressed by so many members of that group. So many similar stories of babies ill with this same condition, parents offering strength and understanding; so many well wishes for a speedy recovery. Quite simply so much LOVE. I’m so glad I joined that group as it gave me such a sense of solidarity and support during that awful time. If 30 Days Wild attracts a kind and caring character of person, they seem to be concentrated within that group.

My post to the 30 Days Wild FaceBook page, with the amazing response from that community.
My post to the 30 Days Wild FaceBook page, with the amazing response from that community.

30 Days Wild: looking back

Throughout the month of June, I consciously endevoured to get a daily fix of nature: I enjoyed my Random Acts of Wildness, I’m certain they benefitted me physically (lots of walking!).  See my other accounts here, here, and here. I’m also certain they benefitted me mentally at least in the short term: some days you don’t feel like doing anything, whether that’s because of sleep deprivation, a low mood, or just sheer laziness! But whenever I had to MAKE myself do something, i.e. I was not in my (I was going to say usual but more honestly I’m going to say) preferred light mood, I felt refreshed, happier and more energised afterwards. During the two dark stints we were with baby in hospital in June, I particularly noticed how connecting to nature helped me be more rational and balanced amid the torturous emotional heights of those times. Thanks to 30 Days Wild, I know that (1) regular, even if not always daily, nature fixes make me feel better and keep me fitter, (2) even a few short minutes engaging with nature will make a noticeable positive impact on my wellbeing.

365 Days Wild

So, I WILL be continuing with the conscious nature connection ethos that 30 Days Wild has instilled in me – 365 Days Wild! For instance, as I write this, it is 6.52am and I am sitting in my parents’ lounge looking out the patio windows over their beautiful garden. There are so many birds flitting hither and thither within the trees and to the bird feeders; I am consciously looking at the birds, noticing their species (if I know it), their behaviour (are they feeding, washing, preening), and the patterns of their movements. Before 30 Days Wild, I may have similarly enjoyed the scene but I would not have necessarily paid such close attention to the finer details. This way, the habits I cultivated during 30 Days Wild are now helping me to stay connected to nature, stay wild and bring nature that bit further in my daily life.

How did you find 30 Days Wild? Have you noticed an impact on your physical and mental health? What did you enjoy the most? Stay wild, people!

30 Days Wild: Days 9 to 20 – struggles to maintain momentum

Maintain momentum

I made a commitment to complete 30 Days Wild and that’s what I’m going to do. For me, a key part of the scheme is to get oneself into the habit of connecting to nature daily. However, when it’s a conscious thing to do initially, you have to maintain momentum to get that habit established. Additionally, I’ve started the Wild Happy Well blog with a view to this becoming a small business, so I’ve wanted to carve out time to do this and again get into the habit of writing and posting regularly. I’ll be honest, over the last 12 days I have struggled with both of these.

Sleep, oh precious sleep

Archie is now 7 months old and up to this point he’s been an excellent sleeper (4 month sleep regression notwithstanding!). Over the last couple of weeks however his night-time sleeping has been more disrupted and as a result I’ve been decidedly more zombie-like. That’s an understatement: I find it extremely hard to function like a ‘normal’ human being when I’ve had either very little sleep (5 hours or less), or very broken sleep (1.5-2hr chunks – although managing around 7 hours in a few chunks isn’t too bad). I had planned to post every 4-5 days throughout 30 Days Wild with daily pictures and nice stories of what we’ve done. I was also planning to continue adding more informative posts about the science of how nature benefits our health and wellbeing. But, over the last 12 days I just have not had the brain power to think ahead and plan/seize those lovely pictures, or think more critically and read more academic papers.

A lovely sunshine walk in our local park: space, green, and peace
A lovely sunshine walk in our local park: space, green, and peace

Keep going

I have however made sure I did SOMETHING every day to connect me with the natural world, however short and however small. This, for me right now, is a win. I’ve missed a couple of daily pictures over this period but I’m taking part in 30 Days Wild to benefit me and not to produce an album for others to see so I figure this is actually fine! It’s funny, looking back through all the pictures I’ve taken over the last 12 days, I’ve forgotten how much I have done which is heartening – I mustn’t be so hard on myself!!!

Random Acts of Wildness (that I can remember)!

Day 9: In the evening I started reading a paper: Cox et al. 2017, ‘Doses of neighbourhood nature: the benefits for mental health of living with nature’. Honestly, I didn’t finish it, I was too tired and needed to go to bed, but what I did read was really interesting – I’ll include it in a post sometime.

Day 10: We visited a local garden centre as a family to buy a pot and some plants for our new deck – we settled on three different types of mint so that we can use them to make our own herbal tea as well as being a nice sensory experience as we brush past them. 

Day 11: We visited the Festival of Nature on Bristol Harbourside. We visited various tents including that of Avon Wildlife Trust where we chatted to volunteers about 30 Days Wild, picked up interesting leaflets, learned about planting for wildlife in your garden and enjoyed looking at plasticine insects and bats the children had made. I also met Steve Shepherd from Shepherd’s Way show on Bristol Nature Radio and we had an interesting conversation – you never know Wild Happy Well might be on air sometime!

Day 12: I went for a walk with Archie around our local park. I was happy to see a section of verge cordoned off as a ‘no mow’ zone to allow it to go wild, excellent!

No mow zone!
No mow zone!

Day 13: Out in our garden, I am still contemplating what to do with the olive tree, and how to hard prune it (as I think this is what I’ll end up doing). It is beautiful and Archie loves watching it wave around in the breeze so it would be a shame to lose this feature. After Archie went to bed I ate my dinner out on the deck in the last rays of sunlight – a good way to reset at the end of the day.

Dinner on the deck - yes that is a potatoe waffle!
Dinner on the deck – yes that is a potatoe waffle!

Day 14: I can’t remember…

Day 15: Baby in bed, dinner cooked and eaten, I stepped outside for a breath and to do something, anything in the garden (NB: I was in a foul mood…probably down to tiredness). As soon as I entered the garden my body took a deep breath, almost subconsciously showing me I needed this. It reminded me of when Archie was on hospital and I had been with him for four nights. I was so sleep deprived, so shaken by worry for him and the constant crying and screams from the ward. When Jon stayed with him on the fifth night and I went home to get some sleep, I stepped into our garden and stood. There was bird song, green, moisture. Nature. Rejuvenation. It was incredibly healing. I’ll write about that experience another time as it’s etched into my memory, particularly how the sudden presence of nature was a balm to my poor state of mind.

Day 16: A short walk around Castle Park near the river. We heard a peregrine falcon but didn’t manage to spot it, but we did see a cormorant diving for fish!

Day 17: Watched a beautiful rose chafer beetle that landed on our deck (see featured image). Luckily we get quite a few of these in our garden, bumbling around with their deep drone-like buzz. Their iridescence in the sunshine is simply stunning to behold.

Day 18: Mega hot today so Jon and I went to B&Q early to get some form of shade for our new deck (all finished now, I must post an update following from this). Having a south-facing garden means it gets incredibly hot and with Archie no shade is a big no-no. We ended up buying an amazing ‘mega-sol’!!

The new finished deck with mega-sol which makes being outside in summer with baby sooo much easier and safer!
The new finished deck with mega-sol which makes being outside in summer with baby sooo much easier and safer!

Day 19: It was soooo hot again today and we were finally all set up for paddling pool action so Archie and I chilled out in there late in the afternoon and even had ‘bath time’ out there! He absolutely loved it, splashing around, looking at the trees waving in the breeze and flinging his squidgey fish around. I was in the pool too and it was lovely to share that experience with him – we shall be repeating this lots over the summer!

Day 20: We had a mini pool party today on the new deck! Mini in multiple senses: mini-pool, mini-people (babies), and only two of them! It’s such a great way for all of us to keep cool, be outside, and have fun.

Hopefully with the weather cooling down a bit we’ll all manage to get more sleep and then we can finish 30 Days Wild more in the manner with which we started! Here’s to maintaining momentum!

Have you struggled at all with maintaining your momentum with 30 Days Wild, or any other venture you’re going for at the moment? Let me know. How do you keep focus and re-energise your activities?

New blossom; new beginnings – becoming a mother

HELLO!!!

My first post, yeeeehahhh! This is momentous to me as it means I have set aside particular me time for writing. Add to that the fact that I am having a baby-free few hours, am currently sat in a quaint teashop sipping posh peppermint and you have one happy, slightly hyper Nina! We’ll gloss over the fact that to arrive at this happy position I had to return home after previously arriving at said quaint teashop only to realise I’d left my wallet in the baby change bag… I haven’t had a ‘me bag’ since becoming a mother so in the heady excitement of setting off, my mushy baby brain overlooked that obvious necessity! Anyway, I am here now huzzah! (And the posh peppermint is served in gorgeous gilt-edged fine bone china. Oh yes.) In today’s inaugural post it feels appropriate to tell you a bit about the new beginnings that have been manifesting in my life as we step eagerly into Spring. (All photos in this post taken by yours truly on my Nikon D7000, post-processed by hubby in Adobe Bridge and Photoshop.)

Becoming a mother: new blossom and a new me

The peach tree in our garden has exploded into beautiful pale pink blossom over the last few days. That, and a little warm sunshine makes me feel like I’m emerging from a long, cold winter at last. This winter has been the strangest of my life so far. My first child, Archie, was born just before the weather turned cold for the season so I have been metamorphosing within the chrysalis, the cocoon of my home. Nina: biologist, wife, dancer, has become Nina: mother, wife, biologist (dancer?). Everybody says that nothing can prepare you for the way having your first child turns your world upside down, but somehow that statement doesn’t quite do justice to the earth-shattering/mind-bending/sleep-depriving/relationship-redefining process of getting through those first few months of being parents. The fact that it occurred over winter added an extra layer of surrealism for me. I regularly need air. Fresh air. Greenery. Nature. Having a small baby in the harshest season challenged satisfying that basic need for me. That’s because doing anything – ANYTHING – with your first small child requires almost military planning and a whole host of additional paraphernalia that you invariably don’t yet know how to work/manage, plus the physical and emotional strength to be constantly challenging what your perhaps battered body and rollercoaster hormones can deal with. But, it also gives you absolute freedom to stay the heck indoors if you want. After all, getting to know your new baby – and your new YOU – is of paramount importance. I haven’t been driving myself to get out by any means, simple walks around the block, or peeking about the garden to see what the plants are doing has generally been sufficient for me. But as the weather has been improving, I’ve been feeling the energy awakening within me again…the call of the great outdoors (or at least my greenhouse), to see little green things grow again, and to have the freedom to go out pretty much when the mood takes me.

My garden sanctuary

It’s no hidden nature spa or anything, but my greenhouse is my garden space. I can potter about tending little plantlings, organising my supplies and tools, or simply sit in the evening sun and listen to the birds. Whatever I do, or don’t do, I can just enjoy myself being outside and in the sights and sounds of nature. I’m not an experienced gardener by any means. Gardening and being in the garden give me pleasure and that’s enough for now. I don’t know what I might achieve in the garden this year with my own little sprig of a baby so it’s important I don’t put pressure on myself. My aim is to try to keep the greenhouse tidy and free of pests, and to grow a few things that I did well with last year: mange tout and baby corn were particular successes. We shall see… I hope you’ll join me for the journey!