The healing power of nature can really pack a punch

To Cornwall, where I have just returned from a rather blustery half-term break that saw not one, not two, but three storms sweep through in the space of a week. We visit this part of the world five or six times a year – indeed, I would live in Cornwall if it wasn’t for the six-hour commute to work. And it was standing on a headland, at the tail end of one of these storms, that I realised why I love it here so much: as the gusting wind momentarily blew away all the obsessive-compulsive thoughts that have dogged me for decades, and I watched the waves crash on the rocks below, I was reminded of my place in the world. My teeny-tiny, insignificant place. The torturous thoughts in my head were right-sized.

If you’d told me a decade ago that a walk in nature would help my illness, I would have angrily mental response that you were even more insane than I was. At the height of my OCD and alcoholism, I needed drugs to take away my pain. I needed an intense course that would remove from me my many irrational fears. Some fresh air and time next to a tree was not going to cure me of my suicidal thinking. But today, several years into sobriety and recovery, I finally get it. There is no one thing that is going to cure me of myself, just a collection of things that will help me to accept who I am. And being in nature is at the very heart of that collection of things.

Which is why I was pleased to see that last week, more than 60 nature, health and equality organisations, wrote to Michael Gove demanding he provides funding for locally accessible nature-rich spaces. The campaign says that a “legal right to nature” must be a key part of levelling up. Gillian Burke, the BBC Springwatch presenter and vice-president of The Wildlife Trusts, said: “Spending time in nature has multiple mental and physical health benefits, yet for far too many of us, green spaces are simply out of reach. Nature-rich spaces for all are vital to create healthy communities, to reduce stress on our NHS and to help our struggling wildlife to recover. All neighbors need nature, and the Government must deliver.”

Nature is the easiest way to connect to something bigger than yourself – and for many bought up in a secular culture, it’s far less daunting than going to church. The scientific benefits of being outside are many and varied, and yet there is still a certain amount of sniffy cynicism about green social prescribing, whereby the NHS links people to nature-based interventions and activities. Granted, a walk in the park is not going to treat psychosis, but for ‘milder’ conditions such as anxiety and depression (and I use the term ‘mild’ reluctantly, as I know they don’t feel mild at all), getting outside and connecting with the world can be a great start.

In recovery from addiction, people often refer to the act of ‘pulling a geographical’ – or moving around in the hope that it will stop you from using alcohol and drugs. Clearly, a change of scenery is not going to be the solution to all of your problems if you are an alcoholic. Indeed, many years before I got sober, I told a very wise friend that moving to the country was probably what I needed to sort me out. She looked at me and gently shook her head. “But don’t you know, Bryony?” she smiled. “Wherever you go, there you are.” The saying has always stayed with me – happiness is not a plane or train ride away, it’s there for the taking in myself.

But during the pandemic years, when I was stuck in south London staring out the window at a lamppost and a brick wall, I realised that a change of scenery can be as good as a rest. Getting to the wilds of Cornwall does not take away all my issues, but it does help me to live with them. It gives me some much-needed perspective. It reminds me that wherever I go, there I am… and that thankfully, I am not alone, or unique, or even that is interesting. I’m just another person, blowing in the wind.

Playful Kate delivers a powerful message