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Isabel Hardman on the Healing Power of Nature

Posted on 14th April 2020 by Mark Skinner

A renowned political journalist and author of the former Waterstones Book of the Year-shortlisted Why We Get the Wrong Politicians, Isabel Hardman suffers from significant mental health issues. In the bold and insightful The Natural Health Service, she advocates the enormous benefits of living life in the great outdoors and how fresh air and activity has proved the perfect tonic for her battles with depression and anxiety. In this exclusive essay, she outlines the reasons for writing the book and it's relevance to the current coronavirus pandemic. 

Coronavirus has - strangely - made so many more of us aware of how much we need nature. It had become a luxury item in our society, the sort of thing that those with money and time enjoyed while everyone else scurried around and kept their heads down. But now we are all longing for the freedom to get outdoors more, and realising how much nature is already around us, even in towns and cities. That the government is encouraging people get to get outside for a daily exercise shows that the experts know that we need nature to stay mentally well at the best of times, and still more in these worst of times.

I started writing The Natural Health Service because I had come to rely on the great outdoors for managing the symptoms of my own mental illness, diagnosed in 2016 as post-traumatic disorder. This has had a debilitating and dramatic impact on my life: I’ve lost months to sick leave from my job as a political journalist covering Westminster, and I’ve had to change a lot of my life as I try to recover. But I was lucky enough to get treatment from doctors who already saw getting outdoors and exercising as being crucial to my recovery. They insisted I took my medication and attended therapy, but they also made sure I was going running and taking an interest in wildlife. In particularly dark times, I would walk along the road opposite my house and make a list of all the wild plants I found. It distracted me from the torture chamber in my head just enough to make me realise that there was a fascinating, surprising world out there that I wasn’t quite ready to leave because there was so much still to see.

As I looked into why I found the outdoors so helpful, I was amazed by the research showing its power - and how psychiatrists and other mental health professionals use it to treat not just conditions we are all reasonably familiar with, like depression, but also the most acute psychotic illnesses which land people in hospital for months or years at a time. Over the past few decades, researchers have found that contact with nature, whether through windows or as someone’s immediate surroundings, can reduce anxiety and stress; improve mood; raise self-esteem; and improve psychological well-being. Natural surroundings can reduce your perception of pain and even help people recover better from surgery. Exercise is so powerful that it can both help prevent mental illnesses from developing, as well as improve the quality of life for those suffering with mental ill-health. When I’ve burrowed into the detail of this research in the chapters of The Natural Health Service, I’ve been amazed by the picture it paints of a resource that is often free for us to access.

Writing the book forced me to revisit some dark memories, and many patients have also generously spoken to me about their illnesses and how the great outdoors has helped them. But it has also brought me a great deal of joy as I’ve examined in greater detail the wonderful intricacies of our natural world: my list of plants, birds and animals that I want to stay alive to see has grown exponentially. And I am also delighted that I can share something of how life can be well-lived, even with a black dog plodding along at your side. I hope it helps many people stay mentally healthy or have a better life with a mental illness than they could have imagined.

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