How nature helps my mental health

If ever there was a time to feel grateful for nature, it’s now.

If it wasn’t for being able to walk outdoors, breathe in the fresh air and feel the sunshine on my face I don’t know how I’d have dealt with lockdown. Embracing nature has been a saviour.

Being outside has long been championed to reduce anxiety and boost mood, and many mental health advocates recommend it to help people feel better. It’s been proven to lower stress, blood pressure and heart rate and encourages physical activity which, when done in moderation, is really good for us.

For me, it makes all the difference. It’s a brief escape from my daily stresses that forces me to appreciate the beauty all around and put things into perspective. I love it.

There are a great many reasons to get outdoors and become one with nature, and I’ve listed the following as just a few of my personal favourites:

Reset your outlook

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been worrying about something and going outside for a walk has lessened the problem. It’s acted as a pleasant distraction and readjusted my mind frame to allow me to view it differently and put it into perspective.

It could have been breathing in fresh air, appreciating the scenery or moving my body – perhaps a combination of all three, but I’ve returned to the original concern and found that it’s loosened its grip.

Boost serotonin and endorphins

Exposure to sunlight is said to increase the brain’s release of a hormone called serotonin which is associated with boosting mood and helping you feel calm and focused. Similarly breathing fresh air can raise the amount of oxygen in your brain, which in turn also increases the levels of serotonin and positively alters your mood.

Meanwhile engaging in outdoor exercise, such as hiking, running and cycling enhances the production of endorphins – a chemical produced by the body to relieve stress.  A completely free and accessible way to make yourself feel better.

Increase Vitamin D

When your skin is exposed to sunlight, it makes vitamin D – a vital nutrient to enhance bone and muscle health and boost your immune system.

It’s been well documented that patients with Covid-19 possessing high levels of vitamin D in their systems have fought the virus more successfully than those lacking it, so it’s important to keep up your intake!

Sun exposure is thought to be the best way to increase vitamin D levels because very few food and drink supplements contain significant amounts, making getting outside even more important.

Escape the daily grind

I’m working from home and it can get very monotonous sitting in my house most days and nights. Ensuring I get that lunchbreak outdoors and a post-work walk is essential to lift my mood and get me away from my screens.

It’s also important to move and avoid being static for too long and to me there’s nothing better than walking amongst the trees, flowers and birds to get me away from the mundane and reset my mind.

Appreciate nature’s beauty

When the technological world gets too intense and complex, I love nothing more than surrounding myself in natures simplistic beauty and escaping it all.

Sometimes my problems and anxieties feel overwhelming and far bigger than I am, but then I spend time in a beautiful place and I get the perspective I desperately need.

The intricacies of a flower’s petals, a pretty blossom tree, hills and peaks or rivers and reservoirs…I just love it! It takes me away to a special place where I see a world outside of my worries and feel much freer.

Nurture something to life

As well as appreciating what already exists, I love channelling my efforts into creating something new.

I spent much of lockdown growing sunflower seeds while my friend started her own vegetable patch and herb garden and we enjoyed it so much. It gave us an additional sense of purpose and felt like we’d nurtured something that either looked or tasted lovely. It was like such a positive and worthwhile use of time, I really recommend it.

Hopefully you can get outdoors this week to celebrate Mental Health Week 2021 and the topic of nature. Why not see if it improves your mood and how it helps you to change your outlook on the situations you find yourselves in.

G x

The limbo of quasi recovery

Have you ever heard the phrase: “I’m not where I need to be, but at least I’m not where I was.”?

That’s the current definition of my life in recovery from an eating disorder. And it’s really tough!

Last year my food restriction was the worst it’s ever been, my thoughts were incredibly distorted and my weight was the lowest yet. I was truly in the grips of my battle with anorexia.

I was losing around a kilo every week, too underweight to legally drive, having bi-weekly appointments and calls with the ED team and supported meals with a wonderful eating disorder organisation in my city. It was intense but it was necessary to turn things around and stop me getting into dangerous territory – hospital.

Fast forward a year – and a crazy year at that – I receive less support and am no longer in the danger zone weight wise. My relationship with food is better, I can manage three meals on certain days, I exercise less obsessively and don’t feel as tired and weak. On paper I’m doing much better.

But that only tells half of the story. The rest isn’t so rosy.

One of the most difficult things about trying to beat an eating disorder is quasi recovery – a limbo-like state where you aren’t relapsing into your illness but you aren’t experiencing the benefits of true recovery either.

My weight may be higher, but my thoughts are still plagued with food and exercise routines, awful body image and the daily longing to be back in the driving seat – restricting my intake and feeling less heavy!

It’s pretty exhausting and can make me feel very hopeless. Like having an angel and a devil on each shoulder.

Each time I feel motivated enough to improve, it’s accompanied by an awful sense of guilt for defying the disordered voice in my head and desperately unhappy about my increasing size. I then revert to compensating by reinstating some of my old rules and curse myself for thinking I could ditch them.

It’s like the physical progress is not matching the mental progress leading me to feel that my weight is spiralling out of control and my head isn’t catching up. I’m still over a stone away from my healthy weight but I worry I’ll reside in a weight-restored body yet keep my disordered mind which frightens me.

I know it’s common and I have been told by both professionals and fellow ED sufferers that the discomfort of progress can be drawn-out and unpleasant. I have been supported to find coping strategies and distractions which, whilst helpful, don’t always mask the torment.

The solution?

I guess I have to keep going in order to get to a point where the daily stresses around food loosen their tight grip on me and I find a way to make peace with my body again.

I tell myself:

It’s like pulling a plaster off – peel it back slowly and you drag out the pain, but rip it off and whilst it hurts more at least it’s over quicker.

I’ll keep going, because I didn’t come this far to only come this far, but it’s a huge challenge and I have great sympathy for others who are in the same boat.

We’re all in this together x

The A-Z of eating disorders (part one)

Eating disorders are commonly defined as a group of psychological conditions characterised by abnormal and disturbed eating habits.  

Although the term ‘eating’ is in the name, these disorders are always about more than food. They’re complex mental health conditions that often require the intervention of medical and psychological experts to alter their course.

I have struggled at the hands of eating disorders over the past ten years and although my difficulties have evolved and manifested themselves in different ways, my issues are still quite prevalent.

So in the interest of raising awareness of these debilitating difficulties in an easily digestible and light hearted manner, I thought I’d present my A-Z of eating disorders…

A – Anxiety

Eating disorders are riddled with anxiety. Whether you already struggled with it before the ED or if your eating problems cause you great anxiety, the two are very closely linked and treatment will focus on ways to calm your mind and anxious thoughts.

B – Bloating

One of the trickiest elements to increasing food intake after periods of restriction is the challenging bloating. It feels uncomfortable, looks unsightly and makes you even more body conscious than you already are. I try to remind myself it’s very common when increasing consumption and doesn’t last forever. It’s also vital to note that no matter what my mind tells me, it isn’t fat. Bloating is not fat!

C – Calories

Sadly, very few eating disorders would be complete without a daily obsession with calories. It can take years of treatment and therapy to allow sufferers to eat intuitively and respond to natural hunger cues with zero regard for the calories that are in their meals. A key part of ED treatment is relinquishing control over calorie intake and working to a point whereby eating becomes instinctive rather than regimented.

D – Diet

I’ve heard it said that ‘diets are just socially acceptable eating disorders’. If your friend tells you they are dieting, you probably wouldn’t be alarmed, but if they said they felt they had an eating disorder, you’d have a much bigger cause for concern. Diets can commonly lead to disordered eating habits so try to remember that if the dieting behaviours are the same as the ED behaviours, it is not just a diet. It’s a disorder.

E – Exercise

Exercise and restrictive eating often go hand in hand when suffering with an ED. For me, it’s about controlling my size and weight with food and exercise routines that mean I am burning off a high percentage of what I take in each day. I have an app on my phone to tell me how many calories I have burned and that makes me feel ‘better’ although can be quite obsessive to check. Therapy often tackles this level of compulsive exercise by slowly reducing it and understanding the cognitions behind the urges.

Young woman running in wood, training and exercising for trail run marathon endurance in morning sunrise.

F – Family and friends

Those around you play a massive part in your recovery process. I’m very lucky as my family and friends are incredibly supportive and I know I can rely on them to help me both practically and emotionally. My immediate family are caring and loving and would do anything they could to make me feel better. I also have a strong circle of friends who are understanding of my difficulties whilst challenging me in equal measure. An absolute lifeline!

G – Guilt

There is an incredibly high level of near-constant guilt involved in day to day life with an eating disorder. I feel terribly guilty when I eat what I deem to be too much, or more than I would normally have, and that can lead me to be restrictive for the next few days, or to over exercise to compensate. I will then usually feel equally as guilty for giving in to the urges and not tackling them for the good of recovery. It’s a relentless battle, and pretty exhausting.

H – Hope

No matter how tough the going gets, you must remain as hopeful as possible that much better times are just around the corner. I still consider myself to be a long way from fully recovered, but when I look back at far I have come it’s astonishing to think of all of the improvements I’ve made. I have learned so much about myself and it’s helped me to rebuild time and time again. Keep going!

I – Insecurity

Eating disorder sufferers are often riddled with insecurity and have low self esteem and confidence. Feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness are very commonplace and that is all too often where eating disorders begin. One of the best ways to combat this is to remind myself of all of my achievements, the compliments I’ve received in my life and the impact I’ve had on those around me.

J – Justification

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to justify myself and my actions over the last few years. Whether that’s trying to describe my behaviours to my family who weren’t familiar with ED thoughts and feelings, or worming my way out of trouble with therapists who saw straight through my excuses…I’ve had a lot of explaining to do!

A plate of food being consumed in a restaurant.

K – Kindness

They say a little kindness goes a long way…and they’re not wrong. The only way to recover from an eating disorder is to be kind to yourself and accept kindness from others. That means forgiving your own mistakes, accepting your struggles but resolving to push through them anyway and being patient with yourself. Similarly, when others show you care and compassion, remember to accept it with grace and use it to your advantage.

L – Laxatives

Not a very pleasant topic – and certainly not an easy one to discuss, but alas most of us have had experiences with laxatives. They weren’t usually very positive experiences either! My therapist told me that they don’t actually lead to weight loss or make you lighter, but for me the reliance on them was to do with feeling empty. I had a desire to feel internally empty each day and if my body wasn’t able to do that naturally – because let’s face when you mess with your eating you play havoc with your digestion too, I needed something to make that happen! I’m less reliant now, but can’t go cold turkey just yet.

M – Measuring

Whether it’s measuring your food or body, eating disorders are massively consumed with various numbers and sizes. It’s common to measure amounts of food and calculate calories on a daily basis alongside a deep urge to step on the scales and weigh yourself too. True recovery lies in the freedom to eat and exercise intuitively with no regard for the numerical value of everything.

Come back next week for part two…