During lockdown many of us have found how much being in nature can do to restore our sense of connectedness and lift our spirits.
This feeling of wellbeing is of course nothing new to many of us – including Colin*, a freelance worker, who has long sought solace in nature when he’s struggled mentally. Although he has always been a nature lover, he didn’t fully understand the healing power of nature until he was at his lowest.
During Mental Health Awareness Week this week, whose theme this year is connecting with nature, UNITElive caught up with him on a windswept beach.
“There was one period in my life when I was really struggling with work and finances and I found myself in a perfect storm where everything just came down on me at once – I was essentially forced to choose between either taking out a massive loan that I’d never be able to pay back or selling my home,” recalls Colin.
“When you’re in that position, as a freelancer, you sometimes find yourself working gruelling hours but you’re not making any headway financially. After a few months of this, not being able to see a light at the end of the tunnel, I was the most depressed I’d ever been,” Colin explained.
‘I couldn’t see a way out’
“You get to this point where you’re in a really dark place – almost catatonic, just like being totally lost in your own despair. I couldn’t see any way out.”
Usually upbeat and positive, Colin said he’s the type to “want to jump in and fix things”.
“But the problem is that just doesn’t work with depression,” he noted. “For some, seeking professional help is important but at the same time, whatever you do, nothing will cure you overnight – you often just have to ride it out until it passes. Thankfully I got to the stage where I did see a light at the end of the tunnel – and a huge part of getting to that stage was taking regular walks with my dog in the woods.”
Ever since that experience, Colin explains, he’s quick to connect with nature when the stress starts to build up again.
“The thing about connecting with nature – for me, that’s either going for a walk in the woods or by the sea or going kayaking or hiking – is that it gives you a bit of humility. Your place in the world is recaptured – you’re reminded that you’re a small little bit of the universe; that our everyday preoccupations, the stuff we ruminate over and stress about, aren’t really all that important in the grand scheme of things.”
Despite the fact that his work did not change much in lockdown, like so many of us, Colin felt upended by the sudden disconnection with his normal life.
Like John in our previous feature, Colin continued working through both lockdowns. While he considers himself lucky that he did not suffer the loss of work or income that many of his friends did, his work in fact became far busier, and he struggled to keep up. The usual options to ease stress – going out for a meal, for a drink, to visit his daughter, or even something as simple as hugging family or friends outside his household – were suddenly gone.
“After a while, it did start to feel pretty oppressive and I just felt very boxed in mentally,” Colin explained. “You start to bounce off the walls because you just don’t have any outlet.
“Especially during the second lockdown, the weather was terrible, but I knew how much connecting with nature helps with your mental state so I forced myself to go out to the beach even when it was freezing cold and snowing and the wind was blowing a hurricane.”
One day, on one of his daily beach walks, Colin noticed a large group of crows gathering on the beach.
“There must have been 60-odd crows. I spoke to a guy who runs a café near the beach just as he was closing it down for lockdown,” Colin recounted. “He said in the winter there wasn’t as much food for the crows and because of the lockdown there wasn’t as much rubbish to pick at or tourists to feed them. And they were really struggling for food. When the tide goes out, there’s also sorts of tasty morsels in the seaweed and on the beach. A lot of them learned to pick up periwinkles or whelks and drop rocks to break their shells open – and they taught this to each other.”
The next day, Colin decided to take some stale bread for the crows.
“The minute I offered the bread, I was literally swamped – I was covered in crows. It was brilliant!”
And so began a relationship with the crows that extended to various other birds – swans, oystercatchers, sparrows, wood pigeons, and more – that in the days and weeks slowly emerged to while away their time with Colin on the beach.
“The more you interact, the more you get to know them. With the crows, there’s a definite pecking order. One is the head honcho and he’s always strutting around, another makes this incredible sound that almost sounds like its meowing. The more I’ve gone the more he does it. One day after weeks of feeding them I even made a breakthrough where some of them started taking food directly out of my hand.”
Colin said he highlights this experience to show that connecting with nature to enhance our mental health only works when we’re totally engaged.
“It isn’t enough to simply take your dog for a walk outside – you can easily zone out and start to think about all the worries in your head,” he explained. “But when I’m with the birds, when I’m feeding them, I’m thinking – what’s that noise that one bird is making; is that the one I saw last time? You’re completely absorbed by them. It makes you forget about all the stuff swirling around in your head because you’re too busy being engaged with what’s in front of you.”
See Colin and the crows below – in our exclusive film, where Colin tells us how his connection to the natural world has helped him improve his mental health. If you need subtitles these are available on the YouTube tool bar under the film by clicking on the subtitle icon.
FIND OUT MORE:
You can find out more about the Mental Health Awareness Week and tips on connecting with nature on the Mental Health Foundation’s website here.
For more on mental health stay tuned to UNITElive
*Name changed to protect privacy
By Hajera Blagg
Pics and film by Colin