An increasing number of scientific research studies are finding quantifiable evidence of the impact that nature-based interventions have on mental health. The concept of eco-therapy or green care (connecting with nature to boost your well-being) isn’t a new one. Japanese doctors have been prescribing forest bathing since the Eighties. Norwegian poet and playwright Henrik Ibsen coined the term ‘friluftsliv’ (open-air living), which inspired the Nordic way of life that’s rooted in a passion for nature. Then there’s Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward O Wilson who, in his book ‘Biophilia’ (1984), theorised that our human affinity towards nature might reside in our genetic makeup.
This World Mental Health Day, we chat with health experts and those living with mental health conditions on how the great outdoors helps keep the mind fit.
Alternative Healing Practitioner Chetna Chakravarthy and Yoga Teacher Natasha Mahindra at Earth Magic Retreat, Karjat
Understanding How Nature Affects Us
Health experts and mental health champions offer insight into the subject of eco-therapy.
Dr Swapna Narendra
MBBS, Homeopath & Anthroposophic Physician
“I believe that spending time out in nature is extremely necessary and something that isn’t done as people get bogged down with schedules. Or do so in a very planned and programmed manner. It doesn’t allow free movement for children especially. As a society, we’re not like the Westerners who tend to spend much more time outdoors. That concept needs to be brought forth again. Nowadays there is awareness about a morning walk. A lot of the adults do it, but I don’t know how much it’s possible with young parents and their kids.
The best thing that can happen to a person is to be in the midst of nature and soak in all that it can give you. When you’re outdoors, all that you’re in touch with are very natural substances with different textures. They play an important role in helping the body recognise them. The body also receives a certain input from different activities – like walking on grass vs climbing a mountain using your hands. These are all receptors that get stimulated by all these natural entities. And that is so much better than handling anything that is plastic as a tool.”
A decade after Dr Swapna Narendra graduated with an MBBS degree from Osmania Medical College, Hyderabad, her medical career took an alternative path. Since the early Noughties she has been a certified-practising homeopath and anthroposophic physician, consulting mainly in paediatrics. She explains how both these streams of medicine are holistic in their approach and nature-based in their treatments. In her work she has observed that mental health-related issues like hyperactivity, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and autism in children and depression in adults are on the rise.
It’s not all work with the 55-year-old. She relishes a good dose of adventure and nature. Her most memorable getaway is from a few years ago – a motorbike road trip from Manali to Leh. Although, she admits that having to focus on the road kept her from enjoying the Himalayan landscapes as much as she would have liked. Closer home, she soaks in the calm of Chennai’s beaches at every chance she gets.
Alternative Healing Practitioner
“Earthing… that’s what a few moments in nature gives us. [Earthing is a fast-growing movement based on the premise that direct contact with the earth benefits overall health.] Walking barefoot on sand or grass; being able to sip your morning coffee with a green view spotted with misty clouds; whether it’s a walk, yoga or just meditation, being able to breathe deep and easy. A lack of earthing causes electrical wires to short-circuit. So imagine what’s happening in our bodies with all the stuff we are trying to accomplish. When we have no daily access to nature, we will lack earthing. This is why holidays make such a big difference. Even a weekend out of the concrete jungle we live in is enough to fuel our beings and ground our energies to tackle daily routines.
I am a big supporter of taking daily walks and jogs near the beach or in a park, instead of on the treadmill in a gym. It’s important to get out and find a piece of nature in our daily setting and take those slightly longer trips at regular intervals.”
Chetna Chakravarthy is an alternative healer who practises bio-touch therapy, chakra healing and oracle card reading. A positivity coach, she conducts a host of positive action and vision planning programmes. More recently, Chetna has been organizing holistic retreats in collaboration with friend and restorative yoga teacher Natasha Mahindra. She strongly believes in the healing powers of the sea. The beach is her haven and she’s getting to know it better through diving and surfing. It comes as little surprise that Hawaii tops her bucket list.
One major problem about mental health and its diagnosis is that your troubles are pretty much the only things that matter. When you find yourself in a very beautiful place, you forget that for a while.
Author and Journalist
“Mental health is a wide spectrum. In more serious conditions, [such as clinical depression, bipolarity, anxiety] travel might be the last thing the doctor would advise. When I have been manic, I have wanted to get onto airplanes and go from one place to another. I have done a lot of that as well but it’s just not advisable – you are certainly putting yourself in harm’s way. If you are able to cope with your condition, then travel would affect you in as much the same way as it would anyone else. You would feel better about yourself and the world.
The best thing about finding yourself amidst a natural setting is that you are able to think about the world in terms of itself. Nature and the outdoors remind you, perhaps, that all narratives don’t necessarily revolve around you. One major problem about mental health and its diagnosis is that your troubles are pretty much the only things that matter. When you find yourself in a very beautiful place, you forget that for a while. You are also able to take it a step further and realise that at one level we’re all affected equally by things like beauty; things like symmetry. To be able to look at the world from the outside is a great thing, which I think the outdoors will actually help someone with. That it is possible to still appreciate the pretty things; to still enjoy the weather… we forget these things very easily. To be able to remind ourselves that the world affords pleasures, it perhaps, does become important to leave the house and go somewhere.”
Diagnosed as bipolar at 23, Shreevatsa Nevatia’s memoir ‘How to Travel Light’ speaks of his decade-long cycle of euphoria and depression. A self-confessed homebody, he finds therapy in writing, reading, music and conversation. He is, however, willing to step outside for a good cup of coffee – preferably at Bandra’s Pali Village Cafe. His travel bucket list is endless with places like the American West Coast, a revisit to Ireland, France, Morocco, Egypt… An advocate of mental health, Shreevatsa is hopeful about India’s progressive, albeit slow, shift in mental health policies.
Nature as a Healer
Three inspiring personalities share their stories of how they turned to outdoorsy activities during trying times.
Left to Right: Commercial and Archaeological Scuba Diver Gemma Smith; Author and Filmmaker Natasha Badhwar and her teenage daughter; Cosmetic Dentist Dr Aditya Sahu
Author and Filmmaker
“Once you are able to see the separation between the external world that depresses you and the inner world that is determined to survive, overcome and heal, you find ways to make the light stronger than the darkness that threatens it. This isn’t always a conscious decision, but one taken by our own body and psyche. I hope it is that ray of hope and personal triumph, which eventually reflects in my writing.
I just started walking in my darkest times, and I began to feel that when I continued to go on beyond a point, the inessential would begin to fall off.
Walking runs in my family. We don’t walk together, but I see that my grandfather, my parents, my daughters and I are all some kind of gifted walkers. We can start walking and go on for hours.
I just started walking in my darkest times, and I began to feel that when I continued to go on beyond a point, the inessential would begin to fall off. The extra layers would get left behind and the sweaty, hungry, tired me who would reach the destination would be a lighter, clearer version.
During my college years, I would walk across the city, covering as many as 15-20km on some days. Among other things, it was liberating because I discovered a version of the city that I didn’t know existed. I found out that public spaces were not as unsafe as I had been conditioned to believe. I developed an agency that has stood me in good stead. I know that I can just get up and walk away, whenever it becomes an urgent need.”
Natasha Badhwar is the author of ‘My Daughters’ Mum’ and co-editor of ‘Reconciliation: Karwan e Mohabbat’s Journey of Solidarity through a Wounded India’. She lives in New Delhi with her husband and three daughters. In her debut book, a curation of sections from her well-loved Mint Lounge column, she touches upon subjects of motherhood, marriage, self-love, travel, work, and the highs and lows that go with it all. At 12.5 years of age, Natasha attempted and survived suicide. She describes depression as an old friend. She manages to address the subject with a lightness that she credits to a personal mantra: “Just because I am sad, doesn’t mean I’m not happy.” Speaking of which, the mountains are her go-to place where “the layers fall off when we climb altitudes.” Her next book, ‘Immortal for a Moment’ will be available later this year.
Commercial and Archaeological Scuba Diver
“While there is no one magic cure for any kind of illness, certain outlets and experiences do have marked benefits. The total focus, the sense of wonder, the need to be completely in the moment, or even the feeling of accomplishment when you finally nail perfect buoyancy or master a shutdown drill – all these things diving can provide. It makes me feel alive in a way nothing else does. It’s not adrenaline fuelled, it doesn’t get the heart racing. It gives a sense of calm and being completely in the moment. It’s meditation on every level.
Of course, I still get ups and downs, as does everyone to some degree or another. I find the one thing that will always make me feel better is to get outside and be in nature. Even if it’s raining or cold, being in the fresh air and blowing away all the thoughts in my head is so cathartic. I really noticed it when I was in the hospital with two broken legs. My mood was noticeably lower. Even just being let outside, still in my wheelchair, when I was finally allowed home, made a massive difference to my mood.”
Gemma Smith is a legend in the international scuba diving community. Listed as one of the World’s Top Female Scuba Divers by Huffington Post (2016), she is the first woman to dive at the renowned Roman-era Antikythera Shipwreck. An extreme sports enthusiast, Gemma has dabbled in flying, skydiving and white-water rafting. But it was scuba diving at age 17 that changed her life. After surviving multiple, severe injuries from a freak car accident in March this year, Gemma was moved to write ‘Mental Trauma and the Benefits of Diving’ – an article that speaks of the underwater sport’s influence on her teenage battle with eating disorder anorexia nervosa and coping with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Even if it’s raining or cold, being in the fresh air and blowing away all the thoughts in my head is so cathartic.
Dr Aditya Sahu
“Somewhere through my depression phase, I realised that I am my best company. I started doing things for myself – bike rides, movies, ice-cream treats. These are boosters that you want to give yourself when you’re down and out. I even do it as a reward when I’ve done something really good. I am a complete outdoorsy guy and I believe in earthing. In the early days to beat low moods, I used to run or go outdoors for that adrenaline boost. I’d park my car where I felt like and start running. One of my favourite routes was Aarey Colony in Goregaon to Powai and back. I got into the habit of connecting with the energy outside.
Yoga is central to everything. For seven years it was more of a pranayama-based practice being initiated into Isha Foundation (2011). After Ironman in 2017, it’s been more asana-based [Hatha Yoga] practice.
Connecting with my breath is what solves everything. I have an amazing distance between my thoughts and myself today and that’s happened because of my regular pranayama practice.
It was at Isha that I came to know of the Mumbai Marathon and the fact that it was a fund-raising event. It made it more meaningful to know that I could make a difference to someone’s life through running. I realised that I have an endurance body and started doing longer distances. That’s when you connect beyond yourself. It’s something that helped me train for the Ironman Triathlon in the UK (2017). The training that I put into it has helped me stay fit, mentally and physically.”
Dr Aditya Sahu is a cosmetic dentist who lived with depression in his late teens. Medically, it was electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) that made the difference. What’s kept him motivated for almost two decades since is yoga and running. That and his innate need to inspire people. He describes his experience at the 2017 Ironman Triathlon, UK, as a game-changer. For his next big adventure, he wants explore the worlds of mountaineering and diving.
Share your thoughts on how being outdoors helps you de-stress and calm the mind in the comments section below.