It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and the theme this year is nature. According to the Mental Health Foundation:
“ When it comes to mental health benefits, nature has a very wide definition. It can mean green spaces such as parks, woodland or forests as well as blue spaces like rivers, wetlands, beaches or canals. It also includes trees on an urban street, private gardens, verges and even indoor plants or window boxes. Surprisingly, even watching nature documentaries has been shown to be good for our mental health. This is great news as it means the mental health benefits of nature can be made available to nearly every one of us, no matter where we live.” (Nature: How connecting with nature benefits our mental health | Mental Health Foundation)
And it’s true – I’m unsure any of us would say that nature doesn’t have positive impact on us. Getting away from urban environments can be hugely beneficial. All of the senses can be fully engaged – the sounds of birds, water and rustling plants; the smell of flowers; the sight of animals and all the colours; foragers can go tasting things or there are trips to the ice cream van; and you can feel the grass or sand beneath your feet or the breeze on your face. During the first lockdown it was incredibly painful for many people not being able to travel to beauty spots or to sit on benches, as being around things which aren’t concrete and brick can help make everything seem somehow easier.
If you look at advice for any mental health condition you will see advice to get outdoors, go for walks, do exercise… and the healing nature of nature is why. Of course there are drawbacks – a key one being hay-fever – but this often doesn’t detract from the release that emerging yourself in something peaceful can bring.
However, there is one other critical issue with this advice that I can see.
With surprising frequency people will tell me they saw me out somewhere and they try to get my attention, but I was in a world of my own. I’ll almost always have headphones in, whether or not I’m actually listening to anything. I often won’t recall seeing them (but not always – sometimes I just don’t want to talk to people, so I’ll put my head down and power on) because I’ll completely switch off. I do this to drown out the noise of other people. Every time I hear a laugh, I flinch. When I notice someone glance my way, I feel flustered. I become very self-conscious and gradually more convinced that there is something wrong with my appearance, that I’m acting in a strange way, or they are ridiculing me for my weight.
Recently I was on the 192 bus and got called a fat bitch by another passenger. I completely froze up and moved to another part of the bus at the first opportunity. It affirmed all the doubts I have about being outdoors and around people. It’s a horrible irony that I can only get the best out of outdoors when I’m not needing the benefits. When I don’t care what people think about me sitting on a bench somewhere with a book or having a slow walk down a canal. When I need to feel peaceful and calm, I’m incredibly sensitive and aware. A few years ago, I got to the point where I was hyperaware of all CCTV cameras and would have images running through my mind of people sat in front of banks of cameras laughing at me. And I was slim then.
Sometimes I’ll avoid going outdoors altogether. I hate it when people in coffee shops remember my order as I fear it’s a judgement. I’ll have to mentally build myself up to going out and then deflate as soon as I get back. Amongst the many issues I have about allowing people into my home is that it’s the one place I don’t have to fear being laughed at or judged. Nobody has to come into that space that I don’t want to. It’s safe. I can let all barriers down and not worry. I don’t have to deal with lingering memories/ghosts of experiences where someone came in and I was left feeling exposed and vulnerable. It’s a private little cell I can imprison myself in.
Social anxiety is defined as:
- worrying about everyday activities, such as meeting strangers, starting conversations, speaking on the phone, working or shopping
- avoiding or worrying a lot about social activities, such as group conversations, eating with company and parties
- always worrying about doing something you think is embarrassing, such as blushing, sweating or appearing incompetent
- finding it difficult to do things when others are watching – you may feel like you’re being watched and judged all the time
- fearing being criticised, avoid eye contact or have low self-esteem
- often having symptoms like feeling sick, sweating, trembling or a pounding heartbeat (palpitations)
- having panic attacks, where you have an overwhelming sense of fear and anxiety, usually only for a few minutes
Natural spaces are often full of people who are there for the same sense of calm as you are. People will make eye contact with you, smile, say hello. You see people laughing together. With social anxiety those things can feel brutally painful. I will have anxiety attacks. I’ll want to cry. All I will want is to have that space to myself in order to be able to be in that space with other people. I’ll want a magic wand to transport myself to those spaces so I don’t have to deal with people on pavements, people passing by in cars, getting on public transport. Little wonder I won’t bother to try to lose the weight which generates so much anxiety in the first place. We’ve all seen the horrible remarks on social media of people who are taking the piss out of overweight people exercising. That’s just an added layer of fear.
There is no real solution to this that I know of. I’ve found having someone I know with me helps, headphones can help. There is cognitive behavioural therapy which can help with rationalising the fear and self-assurance. Making the most of good days/moments when I want to get outside and walk, helps. Understanding from others when I want to hide, helps. Ultimately, nature is great but it’s not a solution on its own. Sometimes those of us who need it most will need an extra bit of help.