Yesterday I went out kayaking with my daughter. It was an experience that I have always found uplifting to the mood and joyful to my heart. We go to a large local dam where you feel immersed in nature and far away from everything else. It was a perfect winter’s day, clear and sunny with a cool breeze. We paddled through the flowering water lilies, watching as flocks of ducks took flight and moorhens led their chicks to safety.
There was a pair of elegant black swans ahead, so we followed them up a narrowing stream. There the stark white trunks of the gums reflected in the still dark waterway, the forest on the bank perfectly reproduced in the image on the water. Stopping, the silence only broken by birdsong, there was a sense of peace and stillness. The timelessness of nature reminding me of the beauty in my life and bringing my worries into perspective.
Where we went is a beautiful place, with a restorative energy, not least because it sits in the valley beneath Wollumbin, a volcanic plug and Aboriginal sacred site. The restorative energy comes not only from that, but from bringing together elements which together are healing for both body and mind – stillness, exercise, light and sunshine, nature itself and connection.
We know that constant psychological and emotional stress, so common in medical practice, induces a continual low-grade release of cortisol. This we feel in our body as tension or anxiety. In Medicine, a low level of tension is almost considered to be normal in our working lives, so we need to find ways to reduce it.
Sometimes when life is busy or overwhelming, for whatever reason, it is difficult to connect to the stillness within, but stillness is so precious and necessary to wellbeing. Precious because it allows us to atune ourselves to the greater picture above and beyond our day-to-day busyness. Finding stillness in our over-stimulated lives allows time for restoration and healing, coming back home to ourselves, so that in the chaos of daily living we can stay calm and focused.
Prescribing exercise in the same way as we do pharmaceuticals means that our patients understand that we hold them in equal value. Regular exercise improves memory and cognition. Both aerobic and strength training exercises enhance our problem-solving abilities, and support us to retain our cognitive abilities for longer. Conversely, sitting for long periods has the opposite effect. Exercise in mild to moderate depression can be as effective as an antidepressant. There is no doubt exercise improves our physical and psychological wellbeing.
Light and sunshine not only provide us with Vitamin D but have a profound effect on our psychological wellbeing. We have learned this from studies of seasonal affective disorder. There is concern that many people spend not only their working days but their leisure time in front of computers, spending much less time in natural light, putting them at risk even in summer months.
And what of nature itself? Of course, nature encourages us to exercise and exposes us to light and sunshine but it seems to do more than this. People living in the city have higher risks of mood disorders than those living in the country. People feel an increase in energy and improved moods during outdoor activity and are happier outdoors in green and natural environments – an improvement in both psychological and physical health. Physical activities in a natural environment may have a more profound effect than the same activity in a synthetic environment. Nature allows us to recover from stress of body and of mind.
It is time to consider greening our lives, writing green prescriptions not only for our patients but for ourselves.
Our working lives are busy and demanding, and taking time out is vital to our wellbeing. What we do with that time can make all the difference in the world. We can simply ‘switch off’, or we can choose to switch ‘on’, reconnecting with the beauty that is all around us and thus to the beauty that is within.
Finding time to spend in the beauty of nature allows us to connect with the beauty within ourselves, with our own core being. This does not mean we have to go away somewhere or live in a certain part of the world; it can be as simple as stepping outside of your workplace during your break and taking a moment to look up at the sky, or sitting under a tree to eat your lunch, or enjoying a walk in the local park. Nature is all around us; all we have to do is open up to enjoy it once again…
I so enjoyed reading this Dr Jane, and your appreciation of all these factors that you have written about seems to underwrite and confirm a feeling of well-being.
Keep ’em coming Jane