head of information at mental health charity Mind
Why Mother Nature is such a great healer
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Three readers tell us about the amazing, life-changing positives they’ve experienced with a little help from Mother Nature. Prepare to be inspired
Helen Rees, 45, is a PA from Hampshire
When I drive down the winding lanes that lead to my allotment, I always feel the knots in my shoulders start to loosen. Spending time there is my favourite way to relax.
The strange thing is, I’ve always thought of myself as an indoor person. But my parents were keen gardeners who also had an allotment, and some of my favourite childhood memories are of us growing fruit and veg in our plot together, then eating it for dinner.
I wanted the same experience for my children, Daniel, 13, and Erin, 11, so when they were tiny I put my name down for an allotment. In the winter of 2013 – eight years later – we got it. It couldn’t have happened at a better time, as I’d developed seasonal affective disorder (SAD) three years earlier, which made me feel really down and drained of energy during the long winter months. But getting an allotment changed all that, because it meant I had to spend more time outside in the fresh air. And even though it was often cold and dark, the fact that I was getting my hands into the soil and preparing the earth for vegetables to grow helped me feel more positive and, in turn, more energised.
Some of my favourite childhood memories are of us growing fruit and veg in our plot together, then eating it for dinner
As winter turned into spring and summer, I got a huge thrill from seeing the seeds I’d planted thrive. In fact, we had such a glut of butternut squash it kept us going all year, which was hugely motivating when those familiar feelings of SAD knocked on my door again come autumn. As any sufferer knows, the condition can be hugely debilitating, but now I know that I’ll feel better as soon as I arrive at my allotment.
Everyone there is so friendly and we share produce, seeds and tips. Some people have been going for years, while others are just starting out. It’s such a positive place to be that all of us, including my husband Gareth and the kids, adore spending time there. That said, although the allotment is something my family enjoys, it’s very much mine and I usually go once a week on my own. When it’s just me, the earth and my veg, I feel incredibly happy.
Another brilliant thing about working on my veg plot is that I learn something new each year. My latest challenge is growing sweet potatoes, which requires a lot of patience, but I love experimenting. I hope that, in the future, I’ll be able to show my grandchildren the pleasure that being outside with nature, and helping things to grow and flourish, can bring.’
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Sarah Wolf, 42, is a communications manager from Somerset
‘If someone had told me two years ago that one day I’d regularly walk for more than 10 miles at a time, loving every step, I’d have laughed until my sides split. Yet now I not only walk anywhere between five and 20 miles a week for fun, but I also spend hours trekking through the countryside as a volunteer with Wiltshire Search and Rescue (WILSAR) – a charity that helps find missing and vulnerable people.
Like a lot of single mums, I didn’t have much time to do anything other than raise my daughter, Bella, 12, and go to work. Consequently my weight crept up until I was 19st 10lb. Then, last year, my boyfriend, Cris, told me about WILSAR, where he’s a search technician, and suggested I join. It seemed such a worthwhile cause, and I liked the idea of something gentle, such as walking, to ease me into exercise.
What I hadn’t considered was the intensive six-month training process! Having never done much proper exercise before, I found the first five-mile trek across the Marlborough Downs so exhausting that I almost gave up.
Yet over the following weeks and months, the camaraderie among the other volunteers, not to mention the sheer bliss of being outside, meant we built up genuine loyalty and affection as we battled the wind and rain on training weekends in Wiltshire and Dartmoor.
It felt as though there was a point to exercising, unlike at the gym, where you tend to just go through the motions
There was something so wonderful about the unpredictable natural elements that made the challenge of walking outdoors in all weathers, day or night, much more exciting. It felt as though there was a point to exercising – unlike at the gym, where you tend to just go through the motions.
My training meant I quickly developed a passion for walking whenever I could, regardless of the weather. I pushed myself to go further in new places, even walking through the Peak District alone last Christmas so I could get my fresh air fix. I loved the feeling of peace each walk gave me, along with the sense of achievement. I was well and truly hooked!
Now I’m a fully trained volunteer, and I can honestly say that walking has changed my life. Not only am I fitter and healthier than before (I’ve lost more than 7½ stone through walking and healthy eating in the past year), but I’m happier, too, and I have lots of new friends from my volunteering. I hope my boots will take me on all kinds of adventures that will lead me to see and experience the joy of nature around the world.’
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Anna Heathcote, 26, is a communications officer from Nottinghamshire
‘In November 2014, reeling from a shock diagnosis of anorexia (my weight had plummeted over six months), I’d no idea my childhood passion for horse riding would help me beat my illness.
I hadn’t intentionally set out to lose weight, only eat more healthily. Yet somehow I got carried away using apps to track my food intake, getting a thrill from limiting my calories each day. My parents and my boyfriend, John, voiced concern, but I insisted I was following a healthy diet. It wasn’t until my doctor confirmed I had anorexia (after I’d gone for a check-up because I was worried about my wellbeing) that I realised how ill I’d become. Horrified, I promised myself I’d get better, and I received treatment and support from the NHS and eating disorder charity Beat (b-eat.co.uk).
I also gave up the marketing job I loved so I could concentrate on my health, and in spring 2015 – after several months off – I looked for a less demanding role. Immediately, I thought of working with horses, because I remembered how calm and relaxed I used to feel around them when I rode as a child. At first I wasn’t strong enough to ride (there were days when I was so weak I needed help from John just to get out of bed), but when I discovered a Riding For The Disabled centre nearby, it felt like a good opportunity and I volunteered.
The combination of horses and nature made me feel happy and less isolated, which boosted my confidence
I adored being outside in the fresh air. The combination of horses and nature made me feel happy and less isolated, which boosted my confidence. However, work at the stables was physically demanding and I knew that if I wanted to ride, I really needed to keep eating.
This gave me an incentive to improve my relationship with food, and during my time volunteering I grew strong enough to start riding again. Animals don’t judge, and I started to view my body as a strong, capable instrument that allowed me to communicate with the creatures I loved. By April 2016 I felt I’d conquered my illness, and although I’d been freelancing I was now ready to return to full-time employment. After finding peace outdoors I wanted to give back, so I got a job as a communications officer with The Wildlife Trusts. After all, I had experience of nature’s healing effects: riding through the countryside, enjoying the peace and stillness with just a horse for company, helped me back to good health.’
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Words Fiona Ford Photography Gemma Day