How nature can boost your mental health (especially in the Cairngorms)
For those of us lucky enough to call the Cairngorms National Park home, nature has been the best medicine to boost our mental health amid the global pandemic. As some are saying, nature has been many people’s second NHS through the Covid crisis: the ‘Natural’ Health Service.
So, it’s entirely fitting that the Mental Health Foundation has chosen the theme of ‘Nature’ this year for its Mental Health Awareness Week.
As the charity says, nature has a unique ability to bring consolation in times of stress and its research shows that it is not just being in nature that counts, but how we open ourselves up to it and interact with it.
That doesn’t mean you have to do ‘big’ things like scale a Munro, or hold a downward dog pose in a forest for 20 minutes. In fact, you can tap into nature for even a few minutes and reap mental health benefits. Actually, often, the simple ways to be in nature make the most difference because you can easily build them into your regular routine.
Read on for our 8 tips on how you can open yourself up to, and interact with, the unique, spectacular nature of the Cairngorms.
Walking is proven to have huge health benefits and even a short walk of ten minutes is shown to improve our mental alertness, energy and positive mood, according to the Journal of Behavioral Medicine.
Apparently the rhythmic, side to side movement of walking encourages nerve impulses to travel from our left brain (the ‘thinking’ side) to the right brain (the ‘feeling’ side) which reduces stress. This means we can use regular walking, even of short bursts, to build up longterm resilience.
There are so many wonderful walks to explore in the Cairngorms whether you want a leisurely ‘wee walk’ (check out this blog), or you DO want to bag a Munro (see here) or you want to create happy hill walking memories with kids (see here) and introduce them to helpful mental health habits early on.
Watch the Wildlife
Not everyone, especially older people, have been able to get out into nature as easily during the pandemic, which can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. One natural way to combat this challenge is to observe nature from your window.
People have reported the comfort and sense of connection they have got from watching wildlife on their doorstep. Putting a bird feeder out, for example, and waiting for the birds’ return day after day, watching them and listening to their birdsong, lifts mood.
We’re incredibly lucky in the Cairngorms that we have so much wildlife on our doorstep – many species of which are extremely rare and only found here. The wonder added to a walk when you spot a red squirrel, or deer or rare bird, for example, instantly brings you into the present moment and into a feeling of awe and appreciation, which boosts a sense of wellbeing.
If you want to deepen your connection and understanding of the wonderful wildlife available here in the Park, you can always hire a guide. Find out more about hiring a guide here and going on a ranger led walk here.
Use your senses
When the Mental Health Foundation talks about the importance of how you “interact” with nature, it means that being in nature has more positive benefits if you actively engage with it. For example, when you’re on a walk or a bike ride make a conscious effort to notice what you are seeing, feeling and hearing by, for instance, stopping and pointing it out to others.
When you do, you have a deeper experience of nature.
A fun way to do this with kids (or playful adults!) is to lie down on your back and gaze at the clouds and try to see if you can spot shapes and faces in them. If you’re in the Cairngorms, you’ll have the added benefit of potentially spotting a rare bird like a Golden Eagle too!
Another way is to play ‘spot the smell’ when you’re out and about – a particularly enjoyable game to play when you’re in Rothiemurchus forest which wears pine as its sweet smelling perfume. Again, hiring a guide can be a brilliant way to deepen your experience with nature as they are full of fun facts and knowledge – kids particularly enjoy the sensory activity of poo spotting to track animals!
Touch is also a way to get a deeper connection with nature. Kick off your shoes and feel the different textures on your feet, whether it be mud, sand or grass (another kids’ favourite!). Lochs, such as Morlich and Laggan which have a sandy beach, are particularly good locations for this as they usually have a variety of textures available underfoot.
Wild swimming has soared in popularity over lockdown as people have sought solace from nature and there is growing evidence to prove, in particular, the link between this activity and alleviating depression and anxiety.
The Cairngorms National Park is a fantastic place to swim (we’d say possibly the best place in the world!) because of, not only the stunning settings, but also the clean water levels.
Cairngorms Wild Swimmers is a growing, active group on Facebook, open to visitors and locals alike, and swimmers give many reasons for why it makes them feel good: you get ‘in’ nature, not just close to it; you get a buzz and dopamine hit from the cold water; you tend to laugh, especially with friends, as it’s an activity that feels fun and often reconnects with your childhood, especially if you’re splashing; there is nothing that brings you into the moment more than the feeling of Cairngorms-cold water touching your skin.
As it often takes courage to overcome fear and your mind screaming ‘it’s too cold’, wild swimming is also an effective way to build your resilience in the longterm so you can deal with other challenging situations that life might throw at you.
To be inspired by the ‘Ladies of the Loch’ to swim in the Cairngorms, specifically by the SnowRoads, check out the video below:
Tap into Trees
King Charles III, who often retreats to his Balmoral holiday residence in the Cairngorms in times of stress, has talked openly about the power of trees to heal. While often derided in the past, there’s plenty of research to back him up, now.
Researchers at King’s College London have proved that seeing trees, hearing birdsong and looking at the sky improves our wellbeing significantly, and for a period of hours. The University of Exeter, too, found that Londoners living on streets with trees were prescribed fewer antidepressants than those who didn’t.
Being around trees – even for 5 minute bursts – is shown to improve our immune systems, lower blood pressure, boost energy, encourage better sleep and quicken recovery from sickness. That’s why stressed out Japanese business executives have been “forest bathing” for years (which they call shinrin-yoku).
The Cairngorms, with its unique, ancient Caledonian forests is possibly one of the best places in the world to forest bathe to soothe your body and soul. Join Highland Quietlife for some Forest Bathing here in the Cairngorms.
Use nature to get a sense of perspective on time passing
Being in nature often reminds us that, while we may be caught up and overwhelmed by the moment we are in, “this too will pass”, just as many previous difficult moments have passed.
Walking through the ancient Cairngorms Caledonian pine forests, for instance, you can imagine how long the trees have been there (hundreds of years!) and how much change they must have towered over in that time. This is a very grounding thing to do.
You can tap into time and nature in this way, too, in historical hotspots in the Cairngorms. The pyramid in the Balmoral Estate is a fantastic example of this. This beautiful structure, which sits perfectly enveloped by nature on the top of hill surrounded by trees, is Queen Victoria’s tribute to her beloved husband Prince Albert on his passing. In her grief, she apparently got much comfort from coming to this spot and being soothed by the gorgeous natural environment.
As you stand beside it today, taking in the stunning vista it overlooks, it reminds you of others’ struggles, which can make us feel less alone in ours.
Do something creative in the outdoors
Creativity is proven to reduce stress and boost mood so, combine it with nature, and you’ve got a superpower on your hands! As the Mental Health Foundation suggests, why not take part in an outdoor activity outside, like dance or music or art?
Or you could make your nature experience even more mindful – by taking photos, or writing about it or drawing/painting the landscape.
We have some great local landscape artists who will provide you with much inspiration. For example, The Old Post Office Gallery is a cafe in Kincraig filled with the wonderful work of its co-owner, the artist Ann Vastano, as well as invited artists.
Look after nature
Protecting the environment can also be a way to connect with nature more and make you feel good, as the Mental Health Foundation also recommends.
One of the unique things about the Cairngorms National Park is how nature and people live alongside each other in harmony, and you can help us do this too. Visitors can make a huge difference in their actions and choices to protecting our Park. For example, disposing of litter responsibly, recycling and walking or biking instead of taking the car.
We’d love to hear about how you’re looking after nature in the Cairngorms; share your story on social media and tag us with the hashtags #CairngormsTogether and #RespectProtectEnjoy