Kathryn Morris-Roberts is a psychotherapist who’s found some truth in the idea that trees are actually good for your wellbeing. She now helps the University of Nottingham with their mental health department, teaching students about the benefits of eco-mindfulness through her Being Outdoors workshops. Here, Kathryn tells us why you should be making time for your gold, green mates...
When I moved to Nottingham to study geography at Nottingham Trent, I used to sit in lectures on Clifton Campus looking over the trees of the imposing clock tower at University Park. I never imagined that one day I’d be working on that very campus offering psychotherapeutic work with ecotherapy interventions.
People are often shocked that there’s any link between geography and psychotherapy. Through geography, I developed an interest in how connection to space and place impacts our sense of the world, and how our identities affect this space or place. Part of the reason I offer the Being Outdoors workshops is to encourage the university’s staff and students to utilise green spaces to support their mental health; it enhances their connection to self and nature.
I’d like to invite you to participate in an eco-mindfulness meditation practice with me. Wherever you’re reading this, see if you can locate a tree. If you’re feeling adventurous, you could always venture out and spend some time with one, but if not, you can probably catch a glimpse of a treetop, or use an image found online. The tree might be close up, far away, an old oak or a young sapling; it doesn’t matter, just notice what you’re drawn towards.
Really pay attention to that tree. Get curious about it. Take some breaths and focus on its leaves, their colour and their texture. It may be that you notice an absence of leaves or how they’re beginning to disintegrate and change colour. Engage your senses in order to explore. If you’re near a tree, experiment with touching the tree and think about what it’s like to also be touched by it. See what you notice in touching the bark, the leaves, the trunk, the roots.
You may notice how the tree offers space for other creatures, how some aspects of the tree grow while others are dying. Now, listen to the tree. What do you notice? I’ve just been out on a blustery day, and the sound of a row of trees bracing themselves against the wind was a cacophony of rustling, drowning out all other sound. As the wind slowed, I heard birds chirping and engine noise.
"Really pay attention to that tree. Get curious about it. Take some breaths and focus on its leaves, their colour and their texture
Notice what you smell, or imagine what your particular tree would smell like; autumn is a good time to smell nature, as trees let go of their leaves and they rot back into the ground.
Finally, think about what you taste right now; you might notice the freshness of the air or a staleness from your morning coffee. As you go through this meditation, notice how you feel; your sensations, your thoughts, what memories or metaphors are invoked.
Has anything shifted for you?
If you participated in this experiment, even through visualisation, it’s likely that you’ll notice a deepening of your breath, possibly a sense of calm in your embodied experience, or how your attention shifted as you experimented with your senses.
You might have noticed your thinking interrupting the process with questions like “Why am I doing this?” or “What am I having for dinner?”
There aren’t right or wrong ways of doing these exercises; rather, they offer opportunities to deepen our practice of being in the here and now. They help us to appreciate our connection to ourselves and nature, and can offer some respite to symptoms associated with stress, anxiety, depression and even traumatic symptom stabilisation.
There’s a burgeoning field of research that indicates the healing properties of nature. Even simply looking at natural imagery can support us to manage our stress responses and calm our body’s system away from flight, fight and freeze. Nature, in some form, is normally available to support a sense of connection in everyday life.
These exercises form part of the workshops I offer at the University of Nottingham, which take place around the seasons. Their purpose is to offer staff and students opportunities to have a break from the stresses of their studies or work, and to shift focus from the relentlessness of doing towards being more in the moment.
Through a variety of exercises, I support participants to connect with nature, with themselves, with their embodied awareness and with others. Through this, they’re able to identify strategies that support connection and those that encourage disconnection. These practices are by no means a cure to alleviate distresses and mental health difficulties. However, they offer a tool and a taste for a different way of being, giving opportunities for people to enhance connection and offer some respite from pressured environments.
This is just a sample of what eco-mindfulness practice can support. If you’ve noticed a sense of connection, I invite you to consider how you might bring it into your life; even a simple activity like going outside to connect with nature can offer a whirlwind of benefits.