Natural Healing for Anxiety
Her hands were trembling and clammy as I held them.
“What’s wrong Mum? How can I help you?”
It was Sunday morning and I was visiting Mum in Slough for the weekend. After a year of Lockdown, I began to appreciate that time I spent with my Mum was so precious. As a keen walker, I have often arranged walking holidays for Mum with my sister, knowing that she struggles to be out on her own in green spaces. On one of our most memorable trips, we travelled all the way to Lands End and had a fantastic time walking along the coastpath and enjoying all that Cornwall had to offer.
Mum has a joy and a love for the outdoors, but she needs that experience to be planned and organised for her with a trusted group of people. Today, I had planned a gentle, restorative walk in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty but all was not going to plan. As I was getting ready, I could hear her getting upset as she talked to someone on the telephone in the next room.
It turned out to be a baffling three way conversation between a herself, a Sky customer service representative, my dad on speakerphone who was currently stranded in Thailand due to the Pandemic. Mum was shaking with anxiety as she tried to relay my Dad’s instructions to the Sky employee who was struggling to make any sense of the conversation that was happening between the two of them. After I intervened and took control of the situation, it turned out that my parents were trying to rectify a mistake on the phone bill which in fact turned out not be a mistake. It was easily solved in the end, but the anxiety and stress that Mum had endured was clearly apparent. She was shaking with nerves, tears rolling down her cheeks and I began to think whether a walk, especially in an unknown place, was entirely a good idea at all?
Over the last few years, the discussion surrounding mental health and wellbeing has significantly opened up. I have watched with great admiration, the strength and courage it has taken for sports stars like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles to discuss the fragility of their mental health. During the pandemic, our national conversation about mental health and wellbeing became increasingly more open and urgent. Data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) showed that 1 in 5 adults experienced depressive symptoms in early 2021, more than double that was seen before the pandemic. It was found that the rates for depression varied across age groups, but most concerning was the leap in poor mental health for people between the ages of 16-39. Also apparent was adults living in the most deprived areas were more likely to experience some form of depression in early 2021 (28%) than adults living in the least deprived areas (17%).
If we overlay this data with access to green spaces the picture that emerges is even more worrying. A report by the Ramblers showed that the richest 20% of areas in England have five times the amount of green spaces compared to the most deprived 10%. Further examination of ONS data reveals that 81.5% of the population of England and Wales live in an urban location and people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds (over 98%) are most likely to live in these areas. Further deconstruction of this data reveals that it is Pakistani (30.7%) and Bangladeshi (26.3%) communities that live in the overall most deprived 10% of neighbourhoods.
The picture that is painted is rather grim. Where natural heritage organisations like the RSPB reported a huge surge in interest from people across the country who used nature as a balm to maintain their mental health and wellbeing, vast swathes of the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic population were not only living in deprivation (and possibly digital poverty) but also had poor access to natural green spaces. 39% of the Black and Asian respondents to the Ramblers study stated that they were less likely to live within 5 minutes walk of a green space compared to 58% of white respondents.
For people like my Mum who were already wary of venturing into green spaces and living in urban settings, the lockdown meant that access to nature was shutdown. The impact meant that her anxiety and loneliness increased and she had to search for new ways to restore her wellbeing such as online yoga and bhajan sessions with her community group.
As we drove out to the Chilterns, which is only 25 minutes from Slough, I could see that my Mum was still in a heightened state of anxiety. I took a leap of faith that a gentle walk in a forest full of bluebells and birdsong would be the release she needed for these pent-up emotions. The walk I chose was about 2.5 miles and went along the pretty Chesham riverside and through ancient woodlands. As we left the car and walked up the hill towards a clump of trees, I could see the smile gradually returning to her face. She was rosy cheeked as we approached the top and I checked in to see how she was doing. Her eyes twinkled and she laughed as she watched Sarita, my daughter, playfully choosing walking stick with her dad. She stood on the woodland pathway looking up into the tree canopy and I could see her listening to the birds. As we walked on, we both saw an astonishing site of a carpet of bluebells in the woods. I could see her eyes gleam in wonder at the colour and the rich scent of the flowers. It occurred to me that my Mum had probably never experienced the wonder that is a forest of bluebells in springtime.
It was clear to me that the tranquility of the Chilterns and the simplicity of placing one foot in front of the other, was the healing that Mum needed to overcome her distress. Walking gave us an opportunity to catch up on things, to laugh at jokes and to wonder at the natural beauty around us. We marvelled at the clarity of the water in the chalkbed stream and she played Pooh sticks with Sarita over a bridge. I remember my mum commenting on how much walking in the fresh air meant to her. She felt healthier, more alive and more in tune with herself. If I needed any further proof of how important nature was to the health and wellbeing of those who need it the most, it was right in front of me.
“So, has being for a walk in the Chilterns helped you Mum” I asked as we packed up our picnic. She looked away at Sarita playing on the swing in the nearby park and replied “yes, I feel much better”.