Noticing nature on the South West Coast Path: Using our senses and other pathways towards mental health benefits

Does using our senses and noticing nature when spending time outdoors enhance our mental health and wellbeing?

I manage to carve out a rare day from my work, housework and family commitments for a micro-adventure, so after scraping the ice off my windscreen I set off for Bossington on a glorious sunny January day with its azure blue sky. I only have a few hours so I choose to do the next short section from Bossington to Porlock Weir and back, this time walking without the family. (The biggest obstacles and challenges to overcome occurred before leaving the house.) I find myself on a flat and straightforward section with the only difficulties some slippery mud and a stony beach section to negotiate, illuminated by stunning views of the river, sea, beach and Porlock Marsh with its ghostly white dead trees killed by the encroaching salt marsh, which look almost fossilised.

Dead tree on Porlock Marsh (C.Petersen)

As I walk, I attempt to leave my frustrations and concerns behind, trying to experience the walk without getting too tied up in them (a bit like a walking meditation – there are various online guides on how to do this e.g. here), but I manage this only sporadically. What I find helps is to concentrate on carefully noticing what is around me – the sights (sunlight-enhanced views, bird life including egrets), sounds (bird song, the delightful bubbling of water in streams, and of course the waves), smells (various country odours), and touch (squelchy mud or hard stones underfoot; plus I dip my hands into the deliciously cold sea at Porlock Weir).  I feel a generally sharpened awareness of what’s around me, as well as where I am and where I’m going geographically – paying more attention to navigational clues – by necessity to ensure I get to where I’m going in good time, as well as a heightened appreciation / sense of place. (I’m also using the less obvious senses of proprioception – awareness of how the muscles and joints are moving, and interoception – awareness of the body internally e.g. whether we feel hot and cold, hungry, etc, which is important for regulating our emotions – e.g. see this Guardian article on the importance of interoception for mental health and wellbeing.)

The importance of all of our senses in bringing mental health and wellbeing benefits chimes with research on the benefits of spending time outdoors and on nature connection (see e.g. this Finding Nature blog), which indicates that it is not only visual senses that add to feelings of increased wellbeing when we are in natural environments but all of our senses, although non-visual sensory aspects have generally been less researched to date than visual aspects. Noticing nature is also important as a first step towards other types of engagement with our environments – appreciating beauty, making meaning, and feeling emotions or compassion – which are important for encouraging pro-environmental actions (crucial in the context of the current climate and biodiversity crises) – as well as for supporting our health and wellbeing. (And TV programmes such as the BBC’s Green Planet are illuminating of the beauty and wonder of plant life – helping us to notice nature and its symbiotic relationships in new ways.)

A growing body of research also suggests another pathway for health and wellbeing benefits experienced when in natural environments – through breathing in of beneficial natural chemicals emitted by trees and plants e.g. phytoncides and other volatile organic compounds. These benefits (including effects such as increased relaxation, decreased mental fatigue, enhanced mood and cognitive function and antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects) are significant and some have been shown to last for up to 30 days after a walk in a forest (in this case after ‘forest bathing’, increasingly popular in Japan and elsewhere). I have written elsewhere about the fascinating interlinked role of trees and fungi in the health of our ecosystems; and of trees in resilient food systems.

In addition to being more aware of and in touch with our sensory inputs when in natural environments, there are clearly multiple interlinked pathways producing mental health and wellbeing benefits through spending time in nature (see e.g. Beyond Greenspace and this article in Nature), which also include through the enabling and positive effects of physical activity outdoors and those relating to ecosystem function and social wellbeing (see also the previous South West Coast Path report).

As I walk on, I also feel myself coming out of my shell (exacerbated by months of enforced and isolating working at home in front of the computer), wanting to stop and talk with the few fellow walkers who I pass on the way, to find out how far they are going and to share info on the path ahead. The popularity of this National Trail and the available info on routes etc make this easy, although it’s not so busy on this winter’s day. Recent research reported in the same journal article in Nature mentioned above showed that those who visited natural environments more frequently showed greater social cohesion / wellbeing. Social cohesion or wellbeing is considered an integral component of mental health (e.g. it’s also included in some mental health / wellbeing assessment scales e.g. WEMWBS).

The amount of time and frequency of visits to natural environments also matters – for example the same article in Nature found that people who made longer visits to green spaces had lower rates of depression along with other health benefits (e.g. lower rates of high blood pressure).

I finish by eating my packed lunch by the river at Bossington (so using my fifth sense – taste – in the absence of foraging opportunities) before heading home along the scenic winding valley and moorland Exmoor roads. I feel lucky (and slightly decadent?) for being able to take a day to do this, and look forward to when I can find another window to do another section.

@swcoastpath @CRPRExeter

River at Bossington (next to car park) (C.Petersen)

For more info on accessible sensory walks see the Sensory Trust and Sense websites including routes (in partnership with Ordnance Survey).

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