Why Going Outside is Good for You

Going outside is good for you

Time outdoors can do wonders for our mental health, but we often neglect to fit it into our day. Green therapy helps us to feel connected and embrace uncertainty, says positive psychologist and therapist   Fiona Austin

being outside is good for you

Eco therapy, Green therapy, Biophilia… there are so many words to describe the oldest therapy in existence.

With the increase of technology in our lives and the exponential surge in pace, it is no mystery that there’s a corresponding acceleration in anxiety and depression. Bizarrely many are looking away from the obvious natural solution to balance this: Prescribing on one hand even more technology, in the form of apps and CBT bots and on the other hand, even more medication. In reality a complementary answer lies on our doorstep. Simply being outside. This is not new, there’s more supportive data on the efficacy of going outside for health, than we know what to do with.

It used to be that a child that was different was one one that stayed in doors, while the others played outside. Now it’s the other way around. In the past, on weekends many of our parents made room for a walk. Now, it seems people have lost the art of a healthy use of free time. The pursuit of joy is dying with the attention demands of a plugged in life. People opting to just veg and box binge. The fact is, is when we experience a challenge, a change of scenery or pace we become exhilarated and that effort results in positive energy. Sofa surfing drains us, but just walking by the water can be energising! We’re growing apart from what balances us naturally.

too much TvAs a specialist in anxiety, many people that I see suffer from an undefined hum of dis-ease, stopping them going out or being socially present, or worse just not following their desires. Then follows a type of depression or hopelessness. In my therapeutic programme called Nature Sense – my clients explore a gentle way to reduce their stress, their issues. It’s essentially about developing our innate common sense, the sense that has never let us down and got us through many a millennia to where we are now.

Has nature become an inconvenient place where there’s nowhere to charge our phone? I’m no luddite, but personal technology seems a bit like alcohol, a little can be nice but too much and then we’re in an abyss. There’s a notion that squashing our natural side, our flow is better because we believe, to be in control of nature makes us somehow stronger. Prescriptions that include experiencing nature through a VR headset along with a vitamin D supplement is touted as better than actually smelling and feeling it. But it’s Vitamin N for Nature that we need.

Just because we think we can control the environment doesn’t mean that solution is more effective. On the contrary, it’s the unpredictability of nature that increases our confidence. It’s the patterns that shadows cast that trigger our creativity. It’s the wonder of the smells and sights that take us from our problems, into the moment where we meditate without even knowing how. We’re mindful and suddenly we’re happier.

One of the things I do with my clients in our Walk and Talk sessions is just walking randomly. We don’t stay on a path, we explore – and this is in central London, not some big forest. Simply the metaphor of going off the path can be harnessed to leading into exploring your dreams of what you’d like for your life, if you strayed off the path. Possibilities seem more tangible when you work outside.

It’s been reported to me by clients that normally when they see a therapist, there’s at times a silence but when this silence happens in a walk and talk session, it’s accompanied by the sound of birds, the rustle of trees – they’ve said “it feels easier”. “It’s a gentler therapy, more powerful.”

Of course there’s screentime – we clutch on to our phones in social situations blocking us from connecting. With nature therapy it’s phone down face up. It’s teaching you to connect with confidence and know that the answer to your life is not within the phone, but within the ability to give yourself space to think. It’s mindfulness without the app!

It’s not just my clients, I also teach therapists and coaches irrespective of their school of thought or background. Teaching other therapists is important in a bigger sense too. If we don’t value being outside, who’s going to save it for us. We are the stewards of this fragile earth. It’s important we show how valuable being outside is otherwise the green spaces we have around us, will just turn into car parks. So I teach therapists how to safely and responsibly harness the power of the outside for their clients and for us all.

It doesn’t matter if you’re in a city, the countryside or by the sea, client or therapist – learning to bring the outside within – to heal – is the most wonderful gift. It’s about going outside to heal inside.

After all, the the first lady of therapy is Mother Nature herself, it’s time we let her guide us!

This article originally  appeared in Welldoing.org

Fiona Austin is the lead therapist in BMCC:  Body Mind Therapy Practice.  Where mental health is something that’s integral to your lifestyle.

Channelling our inner Squirrel ?

Seasonal affective disorder nature Sense

.. or are you more a bear?

Understanding SAD:  Seasonal Affective Disorder.

With the nights getting longer, some of us are truly affected. Understanding that this is just our inner mammal getting ready for hibernation can go a long way to turning around what is for some an extremely debilitating feeling.

It’s a fact that when summer is behind us and autumn rolls in, GP’s start to get themselves ready for the increase in seasonal blues at their surgery. Correspondingly, in the office, managers and HR departments receive an increase in sick notes with the nebulous ‘low mood’ listed as the reason for absence. In medical literature this is known as SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Symptoms of what is medically classified as a mild to moderate depression do include feeling sad but also can include a general lowered mood, anxiety, lethargy, social withdrawal, decreased libido, increased appetite and at its darkest, literally and figuratively, hopelessness.

There’s a widespread misunderstanding that simply clinically observing a sequence of patterns is sufficient enough to conclude there is “something wrong with us”. Then with our feelings named into a disorder, we oftentimes take ourselves off to the GP, who due to time, resources, process never mind a lack of psychological and dietary training – often resort to medication. Increasingly for talk therapists we see people prescribed antidepressants who don’t realise that once you get on that train, there’s no easy way to step off. Antidepressants themselves are definitely not seasonal!

When we understand that our seasonal reaction is normal, our anxiety can dissipate. This in turn can open the door to us using this time for – not just our mental and physical improvement – but also our productivity. Knowing these patterns are actually quite normal and may not need medicating, but just self awareness and informed understanding, can really help.

It’s important before we all press through that shinny foil for perceived winter happiness that we consider a number of aspects. First and in its basic form, we need to both deal with and accept that summers end and that can feel pretty grim in itself. It’s OK to feel this, but better to understand the feeling and give it a more appropriate name. Recharge could be one. Taking a more business perspective it could be considered a good time to capitalise, yes, put our heads down but instead to be more productive while it’s there!  Building on this is the inescapable fact that we are actually still mammals, (maybe if a squirrel doesn’t fit your style, what about a bear!) This decrease in our upbeat flip-flop feeling is evolutionarily appropriate. In the not so distant past, winter was a time that food was scarce, the days shorter and colder, so a little extra cosy in the cave feeling, was appropriate. Electric lights and falsely longer days have had a deleterious effect on us. Our body’s evolution took millions of years, relatively new inventions do not mean we have fully physiologically adapted. Hence our body influencing our feelings.

Obviously there are people with SAD that are actually much more than just sad and who are deeply affected. First thing to check – and is normally not part of a doctor’s remit – is our Vitamin D. This is especially relevant to people of colour where Vitamin D insufficiency is more prevalent due to the differing melanin absorption. That said, the more pasty of us do also need this this sunlight boost so as to metabolise effectively and for our cells to function. Light it is said by many is as important as food! This brings us to diet. In the summer, we’re not just outside more but we’re also eating in a different manner. Diet must be considered but again is not part of a doctor’s main training. Let’s just say, takeaway pizza with a side of doughnuts washed down with a coke are not really going to help with your mood. Our nutritional considerations are closely followed by the big one – exercise. Our body including our organs were not designed to be placed quite so much on the softest purchase from Sofaland or propped up in the latest ergonomic chair. It’s all still sitting! We need to get up more. Thankfully, unlike in the US, British and European doctors ‘prescribe’ exercise as a first-line treatment for depression. So get out there! (Even squirrels leave their tree in winter.) Apart from the benefits of movement in itself, exercise positively impacts dopamine and serotonin. The very same chemicals that antidepressants aim to manage. There are innumerable studies that detail regular aerobic exercise is as effective as antidepressants in reducing symptoms of mild to moderate depression. Unfortunately traditional psychiatry lags far behind psychotherapists and health coaches in terms of treatment considerations, preferring medication prior to talking! Not a way forward. Talk therapy is by far the most beneficial route for seasonal blues and may need a minimal of visits to reframe ‘low mood’. Further, if coupled with any of the above insights correctly applied, can make a world of long lasting difference.

Alas, popping a pill and watching Netflix, seems so much more inviting to many! We must realise that the impact of taking antidepressants along with staying indoors even more, is simply not a way forward for our health and longevity. There’s so much you can do before medicating away the winter.  We are programmed to have SAD – so let’s start calling it out for what it is as opposed to a named cluster of symptoms. What about squirrelling? Maybe not – but let’s at least talk about it and learn. There’s nothing wrong with having season blues. It is very well treated with talk therapy and can be the key to living an incredible winter, as opposed to one that disempowers.


Fiona Austin is a positive psychologist and optimal health coach practicing in London, online and in the workplace.