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Mist rising on Bunny Meadows

At the start of Mental Health Awareness Week, Ranger Tony takes an in-depth look at the powerful healing energies of nature and shares his tips on mindful birdwatching.

Ranger Tony talking to members of the public
Beige line

Our relationship with nature – how much we notice, think about and appreciate our natural surroundings – can be a critical factor in supporting good mental health alongside other factors such as how much money we have or what kind of job we do.

A report produced by the Mental Health Foundation for Mental Health Awareness Week 2021, provided a summary of the evidence of how and why our relationship with nature is so important and beneficial to our mental health.

A lapwing and other birds at Bunny Meadows

It highlighted the need to develop a ‘connectedness’ with nature. ‘Connectedness’ refers to the way we relate to nature and experience nature.

A strong connection with nature means feeling a close relationship or an emotional attachment to our natural surroundings.

More and more evidence shows us that the quality of our relationship with nature is part of the reason for its positive impact on our wellbeing.

A diagram showing how nature balances and regulates our emotions which is described in the accompanying text

Experts in nature research have put together a model of how nature balances and regulates our emotions (Miles Richardson, McEwan, et al., 2016).

According to this framework, there are three areas of emotion which can be affected by our experiences with nature. These three dimensions are: threat, drive and contentment.

Each dimension is linked to different feelings and motivations. Threat is motivated by avoidance and leads to the emotion of anxiety. Drive is motivated by pursuit and leads to joy. Contentment is motivated by rest and brings calm. These emotions each release specific hormones in the body.

In order to experience good mental health, we need a balance between these three dimensions of threat, drive and contentment. For example, when our threat response is overactive (perhaps because we feel constantly driven at work) our positive emotions are reduced, and we can become anxious or depressed. Exposure to nature can generate positive emotions and balance our moods, resulting in better resilience (M. Richardson, K. McEwan, Maratos, 2016).

And I would fully concur with this, for me, there’s nothing more I like than heading out into the great outdoors. I absolutely love watching birds and it’s been my go-to activity since I was a small boy.

I’ve pondered on many occasions why being outdoors and birdwatching is so powerful for me. Why has watching birds (and any other wildlife I may come across, for that matter) attracted and engaged me for so long?

There are many facets to the answer but here are some reflections. The most obvious thing that comes to mind is the simple fact of being outdoors and residing in nature. You cannot underestimate the sheer innate power of the natural world.

Nature: the antidote to stress

A shoreline at sunset

In the report by the Mental Health Foundation, 65% of people said they experienced positive emotions from being in nature, such as calm, joy, excitement or wonder, and 49% of people surveyed said that being close to nature helped them cope with stress.

Jim Robbins, writing in Yale Environment 360 in 2020 said: ‘Studies have shown that time in nature – as long as people feel safe – is an antidote to stress: It can lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, reduce nervous system arousal, enhance immune system function, increase self-esteem, reduce anxiety, and improve mood’.

And, according to Robbins, you only need to spend a couple of hours a week in nature to significantly feel the benefits. A couple of hours a week is not much! It’s quality rather than quantity.

Nature connectedness is also associated with lower levels of poor mental health, in particular lower depression and anxiety levels.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people with strong nature connectedness are also more likely to have pro-environmental behaviours such as recycling items or buying seasonal food.

This is likely to lead to further benefits, if these pro-environmental activities can lead to improvements in nature that we can then go on to enjoy. At a time of devastating environmental threats, developing a stronger mutually supportive relationship between people and the environment will be critical. (Mental Health Foundation, 2022)

Connecting with the senses

A sailing boat in the distance

Connecting with the senses is a vital part of the process of immersing oneself in nature.

It’s one of the 7 ways recommended by the Mental Health Foundation report for better nature connectedness.

Without the senses we are left drifting in a sea of thoughts. The senses are the conduits that blend the outer world with the inner world and the inner with the outer – they harmonise. So, using or connecting with our senses is a vital tool in enhancing and promoting our mental health and wellbeing.

If connecting with the sense of touch doesn’t bring you into the present, feeling the touch of a breeze or the coolness of rain for example, then just allow your sense of listening to come into play, allowing it to move outwards, away from any circling thoughts and simply listen wholeheartedly to whatever sound presents itself.

A study commissioned by the National Trust found that listening to bird song, as part of a woodland soundscape, was 30% better at increasing feelings of relaxation than a voiced meditation app. The woodland sounds, of which birdsong was the favourite, reduced stress by a quarter and anxiety by a fifth.

Looking up at the tree canopy

The joy of birdwatching

For me the real joy of birdwatching isn’t seeing that bird in all its feathered finery through those binoculars. Rather, it’s the pure focused attention one achieves, delivered through the senses, that brings the calm to the storms raging in the mind. The sheer beauty of the creature is an absolute bonus.

A redshank standing on a post

I don’t need to know its name or where it comes from, or how common or rare it is, or where it breeds, or how many eggs it will lay or what kind of nest it builds – none of that is ultimately important. As the Canadian psychiatrist, Eric Berne wrote: ‘The moment a little boy is concerned with which is a Jay and which is a Sparrow, he no longer sees the bird or hears them sing’.

Eric Berne is really talking here about the experience of awe and wonder we feel when confronted with the majesty and beauty of nature. That experience can have a profound effect on our mental health, by allowing us to put our anxieties into perspective and to offer us a connection to our own inner peace.

The psychologist Dacher Keltner says the research reveals that experiencing awe can reduce stress, quiet our inner critic, and inspire us to act more altruistically toward the people around us.

Oystercatchers on the shoreline

So, providing ourselves with moments of awe and wonder through activities such as birdwatching and being outdoors in nature can be an essential tool for improving our health and wellbeing.

Bird watching provides many opportunities to experience wonder, surprise and amazement. Whether it’s spotting a new bird species, hearing an unusual call, or watching a display or mating ritual, bird watching definitely provides many awe-some moments.

Focused attention

What’s important is the focused attention, by way of the senses, that one has applied to the act of watching birds. Research has shown that our ‘nature connectedness’, is directly related to our level of happiness and the primary tool for facilitating this connectedness is connecting with our senses to nature.

Fortunately for us, this is incredibly easy, we just need a little bit of practise, and a good deal of intention. Bird watching then begins to resemble a meditative activity, and the benefits of meditation are well known: lower levels of stress, reduced anxiety, lower blood pressure, increased concentration and attention span, better mental health, to name but a few.

The regular practice of looking through a pair of binoculars at a bird helps develop one-pointed attention.

Ranger Tony talks to members of the public

According to the US public health initiative The Monday Campaigns: ‘Having a single point on which to focus enables you to veer away from other distractions or thoughts that are causing you to feel anxious, nervous, or stressed out.’

It’s that focused attention that takes us out of the time frames of past and future and roots us firmly in the ever-present moment. That moment is a completely still, peaceful, freeing and restorative moment and we should all avail ourselves of it and that is why practising birdwatching is akin to meditation.

I say the practice of birdwatching because although it may seem simple to focus on a single point, a bird, it is actually a challenge for our frog-hopping minds, but birdwatching is an activity that may serve as a mental exercise to develop attention and concentration.

The aspect of waiting and being patient is also a very important part of birdwatching. These days we want everything now, and we live in a society that is extremely good at gratifying our desires. But, we have lost the art of patience. As the slogan goes, ‘Patience is not the ability to wait, but the ability to keep a good attitude while waiting.’ A good mental attitude is vital for good mental health.

Kingfisher sitting on a branch

An act of mindfulness

Patience then becomes a virtue and a tool for enhancing our mental wellbeing and as the writer, Robert Lynd wrote: ‘In order to see the birds, it is necessary to become part of the silence. One has to sit still like a mystic and wait’. Embrace patience!

‘Bird watching is essentially an act of mindfulness’, as keen birdwatcher and writer, Calvin Holbrook wrote, ‘and we all know some of the proven health benefits that can bring – reduced rumination and lowered blood pressure to name but two’.

In fact, practising mindfulness specifically through birdwatching has been scientifically shown to improve mental health.

In a 2017 study published in BioScience, scientists from the University of Exeter proved that when people witnessed more birds in their daily lives, they experienced reduced prevalence and severity of depression, stress and anxiety. Furthermore, participants didn’t even need to interact with the birds: simply watching them was enough to signify an improvement in mental health.

Curlew and an oystercatcher

Additionally, research from the University of Surrey has suggested that actively listening to birdsong contributes to perceived stress recovery and attention restoration.

Bird watching requires us to shift our attention and awareness, living fully in the present moment – the essence of mindfulness.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a garden; you can feel the benefits of bird watching by practising it from a balcony, window, or by going to your local beach, park or woodland.

  • Stay fully mindful and be sure to focus your attention on how the birds look and sound.
  • Examine the details in their plumage and explore the colours. Do you see any patterns?
  • How long is their beak? What do their claws look like?
  • Can you spot the differences between the male and female of the species?
  • Be sure to focus on their calls. Is the sound high- or low-pitched? Are there any patterns in the noises they make? Can you hear a species ‘talking’ to each other? Can you try and imitate their calls?
  • Also, what behaviour do they display?

By immersing yourself in the world of the bird your mind should shift away from your worries or other thoughts.

Single-pointed concentration

A candle held in two hands

If we can’t easily get out-and-about, we can practice single-pointed concentration at home by engaging in a simple exercise.

Choose an object which could be a photo of someone you love, a flame from a candle, a spot on the wall, or a specially designed moving image you might find online, like this The Monday Campaigns GIF. But make sure that you can set aside some time and space to focus and concentrate. It’s also important to find a location where you can sit comfortably without being disturbed.’

So, to practice, all you have to do is just allow your attention to focus on the flame or the dot in the centre of the GIF – or whatever object you’re using.

If you’re using The Monday Campaigns GIF, you may notice that your mind is attracted by the moving triangles set around the outside of the dot. If this happens, gentle bring your attention back to the dot at the centre of the graphic. A wandering mind is normal, your goal is to stop your mind from wandering by focusing on the single point. With practice, you will be able to block out the thoughts and emotions that are causing you stress while concentrating on your point.

We can also practice this simple exercise with our listening too. Get a bird song app on your phone and select a melodic bird like a song thrush – or listen to the recording we’ve uploaded here – and then just listen very carefully to every little nuance of its song.

As with the visual attention exercise, if you find the mind starts to wander, gentle bring it back to the bird song – just follow each note from beginning to end without mental comment, just enjoying the beauty of the song and the enjoyment being expressed by the bird!

Getting outdoors

Another huge benefit of birdwatching is it keeps you active. Most people think birdwatching just involves standing around and occasionally lifting your arms to your eyes to peer through a pair of binoculars.

The sea reflecting the sky

This obviously can be the case but often the best birdwatching can take you to some wonderful outdoor locations such as woodlands, the coast, marshlands and mountains.

Indeed, many of the more interesting or hard-to-find species may be lurking in more remote areas away from human activity, meaning more effort is required to reach them.

One study found that people who exercise in the outdoors on a regular basis have higher levels of a hormone called serotonin, which reduces tiredness and helps keep us in a happier mood. So, your walk, even to a regular birdwatching haunt, will help reduce stress, anxiety and depression.

Staying social

Birdwatching as an activity can also be very sociable. While I like nothing more than the isolation and solitude of a solo birdwatching venture where I can really connect with the peace and quiet of a location, there is a huge birdwatching community out there.

There are over 3 million regular birdwatchers according to a report by the RSPB and it’s a community who love nothing more than to share their knowledge, expertise and appreciation of, not just birds, but nature as a whole.

Ranger tony with a member of the public

In fact, if you head to a renowned birding spot over and again, you’re likely to bump into fellow birdwatchers who will soon become familiar faces, and perhaps even friends. Indeed, another advantage of bird watching is that it can be a great way to make new friends and the mental health benefits of staying social are well proven. According to the Mayo Clinic: not only does it reduce loneliness and boost well-being, but it can sharpen memory and cognitive skills, too.

Discovering new skills

Many studies cite that learning a new skill, such as birdwatching, is an incredible way to improve the quality of your mental wellbeing. A new hobby can be a great stress reliever. It gives our minds something to think about other than our daily worries and is a tremendous boost to our confidence.

As a beginner birdwatcher there is nothing more satisfying than correctly naming a bird you have spotted, and it gets even better if you can identify a bird by its song! This sense of achievement is an important factor in developing mental wellbeing.

Roosting sanderling

We are evolutionary predisposed to respond positively to nature – we’ve evolved for thousands of years in natural settings – so take the time now to avail yourself of the powerfully healing energies of nature.

Find out more about about boosting your mental wellbeing in nature, and read Ranger Tony’s blog about why birdwatching is good for the soul.