Anxiety and Green Space: The Nature of Healthy Escapism

One of my most effective anxiety management strategies is regular immersion in nature.  Being in nature allows me space to decompress from the tightly-wound mechanical beat of urban life.  It allows me to slow down and reintegrate with the cyclical rhythms of nature and give my brain a rest.  Nature time helps the distractions of everyday life to melt away and lets me pay mindful attention to what is around me.  Through slowing down and mindful focus, nature time allows my unburdened brain to unleash the creative power of my unconscious mind, where I come up with some of my most inspired new ideas.  As an introvert and highly-sensitive person, alone time in nature gives also gives me space to recharge my energy away from the busy human throng of the city.

Cities like Melbourne, where I live, can be dynamic places to live and work.  They are hubs where people coalesce because of the critical mass of opportunity and creativity that such centres provide.  However, urban centres are also environments dominated by concrete and steel, by mechanical organisation and electronic stimulation, by fast pace and noise.  They can be stressful places to be in because the human animal did not evolve to exist in such a hostile environment.

There is a great deal of evidence to support the idea of being in nature as an anxiety palliative.  Living close to green space has been associated with lower levels of stress, lower incidences of anxiety and depression, as well as heart disease, diabetes and asthma.  The link between nature and these health outcomes lies in the propensity of exposure to nature to relieve stress.

My Nature Time

As many readers will know, 2016 proved to be a challenging year for me in the aftermath of my nationally-televised panic attack.  Fronting up with my anxiety and depression battles in such a public way, while ultimately positive, was a draining experience as worked to integrate a new understanding of my experiences, my identity and my place in the world into my life.  By the end of the year I was well and truly spent and in need of a break.

At this time I embarked on a series of walks along creek and river pathways along the Yarra River corridor in Melbourne’s northeast.  I began with a walk along Diamond Creek from Eltham to its termination at the Yarra River, then east along the Yarra to its junction with Mullum Mullum Creek.  The Yarra – Diamond Creek junction at Lenister Farm Wetlands is gorgeous, along a straight stretch of the Yarra lined with gum trees.  Cataracts on the Yarra adjacent to Griffiths Park and Petty’s Orchard were beautiful spots to rest and listen to the sound of the rapids washing over the rocks.  Prior to European settlement, the terminus of Mullum Mullum Creek on an elbow of the Yarra was an important meeting place for the Wurundjeri people.

My next walk took me down the Merri Creek at CERES Community Environment Park in East Brunswick to Dight’s Falls on the Yarra.  The Merri Creek trail is fascinating because of its more abrupt interface with the surrounding urban environment of Brunswick, Northcote and Clifton Hill.  After commencing this walk I felt a strong need to make it to the mouth of Merri Creek and Dight’s Falls.  I knew nothing about that location, other than seeing it on a map.  It was only when I arrived at Dight’s Falls did I discover the deep significance of that site as a sacred to the Wurundjeri people as a meeting place and centre for aquaculture on the Yarra.  How could one not feel serenity in such a special place?  Wurundjeri elder Colin Hunter Jr. explains…

My next adventure on the Yarra Trail took me back to Lenister Farm, from where I headed east downstream to the river cataract at Westerfolds Park.  The sound of the insect and bird life along this corridor was mesmerising and meditative, with every distant car sound a fading intrusion.  What better way to calibrate one’s senses than to stroll peacefully through such a green space!

A Healthy Escapism

The trails along the Yarra River and the creeks of northeast Melbourne are a treasure.  Spending time on these trails helped me recharge, refocus and grow after a difficult year.  I was able to reflect on the tumult of the year from a place of calm, removed from chaotic context in which my journey unfolded.  In this space I was able to re-connect with the larger whole of life and my inter-dependence with the human and environmental systems on which I depend.  When one is susceptible to becoming enveloped in a depressive bubble, cultivating perspective and connection is a helpful counter.

For me, nature time is the antidote.  I enjoy paying attention to the diverse flora and fauna in the green spaces I frequent.  The temperature is cooler in these green spaces as well, relative to the heat islands created by urban development outside of the forest perimeter.  I notice the changes in vegetation through the forest according to variations in the local watershed and soil horizon.  I observe the direction of the prevailing winds, signposted by the repeated lean and distribution of foliage of the trees.  I hear the hum of the insects and croaking of frogs.  I note how I am feeling while immersed in the forest, both physically and mentally.  And while I am paying mindful attention to all of these things, I am not focussed on matters outside the forest.

From my perspective, this one is a no-brainer for good mental health.  Immersion in green space and nature is a wonderful way to take care of yourself and recalibrate for your next tilt at “everyday” life.