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)

Nature Connection Useful Links

Here are links to a selection of useful websites and publications to help with ideas to increase nature connection and reading for interest. Let me know if you’d like to see a section on a particular topic – I’ll add more over time.

 

Useful resources for teachers and parents

Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Birds (RSPB)

RSPB give nature a home in your garden

https://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/give-nature-a-home-in-your-garden/

Here’s their YouTube channel for great videos on activities to help wildlife find a home near you (compassion pathway to nature connection!):

https://www.youtube.com/user/rspbvideo

 

Sensory Trust

For inclusive and sensory design, using nature and the outdoors for the health and wellbeing for people living with disability and health issues, their families and carers.

http://www.sensorytrust.org.uk/

For creative activities involving the senses and using the outdoors and nature.

http://www.sensorytrust.org.uk/information/creative-activities/index.htm

 

The Wildlife Trusts

For places, activities and information on nature and wildlife in the UK. They also run the annual nature connection scheme 30 Days Wild (check it out and take part, it’s great and proven to work!):

http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/

Their pages for nature, health, and wellbeing:

http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/living-landscape/nature-health-and-wild-wellbeing

David Suzuki Foundation

Canadian research, education and analysis organisation working to conserve and protect the environment.

https://davidsuzuki.org/

They have some great teachers resources for connecting children to nature:

https://davidsuzuki.org/take-action/connecting-with-nature-education-guide/

 

Selected scientific papers/reports on the benefits of nature and nature connection

Richardson et al. (2017), Journal of Ergonomics. Nature: a new paradigm for well-being and ergonomics.

Capaldi et al. (2014). Frontiers in Psychology. The relationship between nature connectedness and happiness: a meta-analysis.

Richardson et al. (2015), Report for the RPSB. The impact of children’s connection to nature.

Cox et al. (2017), BioScience. Doses of neighborhood nature: the benefits for mental health of living with nature.

Wood et al. (2014), PLOS One. A repeated measures experiment of school playing environment to increase physical activity and enhance self-esteem in UK school children.

Wooller et al. (2016). International Journal of Environmental Health Research. Occlusion of sight, sound and smell during Green Exercise influences mood, perceived exertion and heart rate.

 

Parallel London 2017

Parallel London 2017

The big day arrived! Sunday 3rd September 2017 saw the second ever event in Parallel London 2017, at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The day was such a treat! I’d never been to the Olympic Park before so that alone was a good experience. But, oh my, the event itself was incredible! An electric atmosphere of fun, camaraderie, and achievement pervaded wherever you went.

Parallel London 2017 at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
Parallel London 2017 at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

Super Sensory 1km

Prior to The Sensory Projects‘ sensory field events in our tent, there was the Super Sensory 1km event. This race was the brainchild of my good friend Joanna Grace. It is a 1km course with a buffet of sensory experiences that is absolutely completely and utterly inclusive!

Fun warming up for the Super Sensory on the start line!Fun warming up for the Super Sensory on the start line! Joanna Grace is in the fabulous frock on the far left.

Last year Joanna designed and created the sensory installations; this year they had been up-scaled to mega-event level. It was an incredibly popular event, and the atmosphere was fantastic! There were so many people lined up on the start line together, it was so much fun as the event leaders got everyone warming up nicely and busting out some funky dance moves (which I had the pleasure of capturing on my camera)! Everyone was rearing to go when it finally started and it was a delight to see the range of brilliant outfits participants were wearing. It was also awe-inspiring to see so many people with different physical challenges visible to me taking part alongside people with no apparent challenges, proving that the event is absolutely inclusive. And the smiles. THE SMILES!!! Why don’t we see more events like this? Designed for everybody.

The Sensory Projects tent: Sensory Field Events

WE HAD THE BEST FUN!!! Quite simply the tent was filled with people from as soon as we opened the doors (we even had a little queue waiting for us to open!) and it remained that way late into the afternoon. Visitors sampled sensory delights from each of the field event tables and the tent was filed with chatter, laughter, and music. Each field event table was run by a volunteers from different little enterprises, like little old me at WHW. Hannah and Lucy from The Sensory Dispensary wrote about each of the activities in their recent blog post about Parallel London 2017, have a read of it here.

Sensory Tent antics!
Sensory Tent antics before we opened!
Joanna Grace and her Sensory Field Event Tent
Joanna Grace and her Sensory Field Event Tent
Sound Tracks and The Best Medicine (plus visitor Becky Lyddon from Sensory Spectacle)
Sound Tracks and The Best Medicine (plus visitor Becky Lyddon from Sensory Spectacle)
Claire Chalaye helping youngsters stimulate their vestibular systems
Clare Chalaye helping youngsters stimulate their vestibular systems.

At the Wild Happy Well table, as you know, I was providing olfactory sense stimulation using my glorious herby sniff bags. I brought pictures of the herbs for people to look at too but I couldn’t leave it at that; I just had to bring a great big pot of the herbs with me and they really brightened up the place. It’s amazing what even the smallest bit of nature indoors can do for our comfort levels. I had an extraordinary amount of fun! I chatted to so many nice and interesting people, and I was delighted that so many people enjoyed my sensory activities.

  • The sensory stimulation was smelling the contents of the herby sniff bags, something that anyone can do. I brought lavender, mint, and lemon balm. For those with PMLD, I described what it was to their carers and warned that the scents could be quite intense so that they could carefully offer the sniff bags. Most visibly enjoyed at least one of the scents although one or two did find the smells a bit too much. It just goes to show that for people with PMLD, interaction with nature isn’t always a pleasurable experience. I find this a very interesting area and am beginning some research into options for sensory gardens that provide a gentle experience of nature, inclusive to all. Watch this space!
  • The tougher challenge was then to match the scent to the plant. I thought this would be really easy but I was surprised at how many people got at least one wrong. And it seemed that my lavender was the one to trip people up the most – it was often confused with rosemary (not that I had any of that with me).
  • The next part was me getting all Wild Happy Well: I then asked people some questions specifically designed to enhance their connection to the nature provided by my lovely herbs
    • What does it mean to you? Does each smell remind you of anything? A person, a place, an event?
    • Does the smell make you feel different? If so, how does it make you feel?

This part was really interesting for me, especially as this was my first time trying something like this out. The questions really made people think. I could see so many different responses: some got a bit misty-eyed as they recounted stories of childhood memories involving that herb, others seemed a bit bewildered apparently struggling to locate that herb/smell in any part of their day-to-day life, some enthused about how they love to make tea with it! Some simply grinned and said it made them happy. That was the best bit for me!

The Wild Happy Well olfactory table
The Wild Happy Well olfactory table! Me and my herbs 🙂 [Only photo in this post not taken on my Nikon DSLR – this was on my Samsung Galaxy S5]
Overall, Parallel London 2017 was an incredible experience, one I will never forget. It was the first time Wild Happy Well was out on the road meeting people, and that was a great learning experience. It was also an incredibly inspiring experience as I witnessed participants achieving amazing feats of personal accomplishment. Everyone had so much fun, I thoroughly recommend it to you for a grand day out!

Photography

If you’re interested in photography, I took these photos on my Nikon D7000 DSLR and post-processed them in Adobe Camera Raw (Photoshop).

Getting ready for Parallel London 2017

Parallel London preparation

I’m very excited as Wild Happy Well’s first event is approaching! I’m taking part in Parallel London 2017 volunteering for Joanna Grace’s The Sensory Projects, so my Parallel London preparation is now in full swing! The Sensory Projects combine all of Joanna’s activities in creating sensory stories, books, structured sensory art, providing training, and more. They are “run on the principle that with the right knowledge and a little creativity inexpensive items can become effective sensory tools for inclusion” and this is at the heart of what we will be doing at Parallel London. Joanna has been working with the creators of Parallel London to provide sensory experiences that are inclusive to everyone and includes the Super Sensory 1km, a multi-sensory course. This year, she is running a sensory tent with activities designed specifically to stimulate each of the senses, and together with other like-minded folk, we’ll be providing a buffet of sensory delights!

The Sensory Project Tent

The Sensory Tent at Parallel London will contain a variety of tables, one for each of the seven sensory systems that The Sensory Projects works with, with activities and challenges for participants to engage with:

  1. Vision (sight)
  2. Olfaction (smell)
  3. Gustation (taste)
  4. Auditory sense (hearing)
  5. Touch
  6. Proprioception (perception of body position, position of body parts relative to one another)
  7. Vestibular sense (balance, spatial awareness)

Wild Happy Well table

Wild Happy Well is delighted to hosting the Olfactory Sense table: I’ll be providing natural olfactory delights to tickle your nostrils and challenge your connection with plants (it won’t be very difficult I promise – it’s meant to be fun after all!). The WHW activities will be specifically designed to help enhance your nature connection using current scientific thinking. So by taking part you’ll come away with a stronger connection to nature, with all the benefits that brings! Add that to the fun you’ll have at all the other sensory tables plus the exercise you’ll get if you do any of the courses, and hopefully you’ll be feeling absolutely tip-top by the time you leave!

Olfactory sense activity preparation

My Parallel London preparation is in full swing! I’ve been busy designing activities, challenges, and other resources to bring along. It’s a lot of fun doing the research into what plants are great for olfactory stimulation and gathering the bits and bobs I might need. There’s been much rubbing and sniffing of plants, quite a lot of plant buying (yes, I have a problem, I knoooow), online order deliveries, designing, cutting, gluing, potting, head-scratching, and help-seeking! We are making good progress!

Echinacea is a gorgeous plant with a earthy, boggy sort of scent. For a bonus, the flower centers are quite hard and gently spikey, so are great tactile stimulation to boot!
Echinacea is a gorgeous plant with a earthy, boggy sort of scent. For a bonus, the flower centers are quite hard and gently spikey, so are great tactile stimulation to boot!
This stunning bloom is a dahlia called 'Karma Chocolate' and it actually smells like chocolate! The flower heads are quite robust and feel nice to gently cup in your hands. I have to get myself some of these for our garden!
This stunning bloom is a dahlia called ‘Karma Chocolate’ and it actually smells like chocolate! The flower heads are quite robust and feel nice to gently cup in your hands. I have to get myself some of these for our garden!

Nature Sensory Treasure Hunt!

As part of my Parallel London preparation, Joanna has sent me on a Nature Sensory Treasure Hunt! She’s been tweeting me clues to help me find the best plants for sensory stimulation, and the clues have been both easy and difficult! I’ve got a few in the bag, but some I’m struggling with and have been asking for help so if you can help me out, please do so in the comments – I’d be much obliged! So far we’ve had clue’s 1 to 4: auditory experience, olfaction, vestibular stimulation, and gustation. I know there are more to come and I might have my work cut out! Join the fun on Twitter and Facebook to add your suggestions and help me learn about the amazing sensory plants I just know are out there! I’ll write a post about my findings for all the senses when we’ve got good options for each sense.

 

If you’re planning to come to Parallel London, do drop by The Sensory Project Tent and say hi! We’ll be in the personal development zone. Hope to see you there!

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!

Taking part in 30 Days Wild 2017

Wild Happy Well is taking part in 30 Days Wild!

The Wild Happy Well family is taking part in 30 Days Wild! Here on the blog I’ll be writing about our wild adventures – our Random Acts of Wildness – and how I think it’s improving our nature connection. See Part 1 of my post on how Nature improves our health and wellbeing if you’d like an introduction to the evidence. I’ll share our photographs so you can get an idea of what we’ve been up to and the nature we’ve seen in our local area, plus tips on simple easy ways to connect with your nearby nature.

The Wildlife Trusts’ scheme

30 Days Wild is a scheme run by The Wildlife Trusts that aims to get people more connected to nature in order to benefit from the health and wellbeing boosts that science shows us nature provides. It also helps people and families learn about the nature around them which will hopefully help the next generation care for the world around us, protecting and preserving our biodiversity. By signing up to and taking part in 30 Days Wild, you can be inspired by the many ‘random acts of wildness’ they suggest and get your paws on some fun materials to make taking part even more fun for all the family!

Peony at Tyntesfield, taking part in 30 Days Wild
Day 1: A stunning display of flowers at Tyntesfield, like this gorgeous peony.

Getting into your wild swing!

I think the key with really engaging with this scheme is consistency – achieving regular exposure and connection with nature, even if only for a short duration. After all, we know that the first 5 minutes or so in nature can give the greatest benefits. This is why I’m not going to be putting pressure on us to go on enormous expeditions, but instead carve out quality moments in which we can really be present. With a young baby some days you are just too tired to even get out of the house, let alone go on a long walk or pack us all up to go somewhere further afield. So, whether it’s meditating in the garden, arranging some flowers, or even just a quick walk around the block noticing the trees, flowers, birds and bugs, taking part in 30 Days Wild we’ll do SOMETHING to connect with our nearby nature.

WHW’s first few days

On Day 1 of taking part in 30 Days Wild, my mum, Archie and I visited the National Trusts’ property Tyntesfield near Bristol. It was a beeeeautiful sunny day and we saw many stunning displays of flowers, walked around the grounds, and rested beneath lush leafy canopies provided by the mature trees. Day 2 was a tired day for me and it was quite rainy so we stayed in until both the weather and I had perked up when went for a walk around our village for Archie’s late afternoon nap. We admired flowers in people’s gardens and walked through a local community park where my mum searched for four-leaf clovers. She has a gift of being able to spot these genetic rarities and enjoys peering over the green leafy spread. Having not found any for over a year, she found five in about 10 minutes!!! She believes that they bring good luck, and she found one for each member of our immediate family, so hopefully it’ll be a healthy, happy and well summer for all of us!

Four-leaf clovers, taking part in 30 Days Wild
Four-leaf clovers my mum found during a walk in the park.
Under the leafy canopy at Tyntesfield.
Resting under the leafy canopy at Tyntesfield.

 

If you’re new to Wild Happy Well, find out what I’m about here.

Today’s task: We’re a few days in but it’s still not too late to sign up to 30 Days Wild! Will you go for it? Have you done it before, and if so did it benefit you in some way?