How woodland sounds can soothe your stress

The sounds of nature can boost your wellbeing.

A walk in woodlands can make strong strides with your stress levels and can boost your overall wellbeing, according to a new study.

The National Trust research aimed to compare the impact on stress and anxiety of listening to woodland sounds compared to listening to an audio recording of a relaxing meditation.

Findings showed that listening to woodland sounds – including birds singing, leaves crunching underfoot, and the trickle of a stream – increased relaxation levels by 30%. They also reduced stress levels by 24%, and there was a 19% downturn in anxiety. Comparing this with the voiced meditation app: relaxation levels showed no change, but feelings of stress reduced by 39% and feelings of anxiety reduced by 47%. The research concluded that the environment can impact on how you feel.

Dr Eleanor Ratcliffe, Lecturer in Environmental Psychology at the University of Surrey, said: ‘There is a large body of scientific evidence demonstrating that experience of nature can benefit health and wellbeing, including recovery from everyday psychological stress. Much of this research has focused on visual experiences, but more recent work has shown that the sounds of the outdoors, such as birdsong, wind, and water, can also improve mood and reduce stress.’

Stress management techniques often focus on breathing, meditation, exercise and managing your negative thoughts. Yet this latest study shows that attuning to your senses and listening to calming sounds can help too. If woodland sounds work for you, then think about other ways you can soothe your stress through your ears – maybe by making a play list of your favourite relaxing music to accompany you back to a calmer place when you feel your stress levels rising.

Why trying to relax can trigger your anxiety

Trying not to worry can bring on its own anxiety. (pic credit: Aleksandra Sabelskaia)

The headline of this post sounds like a paradox. Why would efforts to achieve relaxation end up bringing on more anxiety?

Yet research from Penn State shows that if you’re suffering from anxiety then you may strategically choose worrying over relaxing. Researchers found that people with anxiety can actively resist relaxation for fear that the gap between relaxing and anxiety may be too severe should something bad happen. It feels safer to continue worrying.

The study looked at people with and without generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) to measure how sensitive they were to changes in their emotional state, and took them through some relaxation exercises before asking them to watch a video that would elicit fear or sadness.

The researchers found that people with GAD were more likely to be sensitive to sharp spikes in emotion, and this sensitivity was linked to feeling anxious during sessions intended to induce relaxation. It is as though they are making themselves anxious on purpose as a way to protect themselves from the letdown if something bad happened.

They fear their anxiety will spike suddenly after they choose to relax, and so prefer instead to maintain a constant state of low-level worry. That is preferable to giving way to relaxing activities, which can bring on Relaxation Induced Anxiety (RIA). It may explain why people who experience anxiety aren’t able to respond to typical anxiety-reducing techniques such as mindfulness, visualisation and deep breathing. They can instead experience a spike in their anxiety while trying to relax.

I’m imagining that anyone reading this post who hasn’t experienced anxiety will be wondering why anxious people can’t switch off their worry. And a person with anxiety reading this post might identify for the first time with the phenomenon I’m describing.

Advice from Michelle Newman, professor of psychology, is as follows: “People may be staying anxious to prevent a large shift in anxiety, but it’s actually healthier to let yourself experience those shifts. The more you do it, the more you realise you can do it and it’s better to allow yourself to be relaxed at times. Mindfulness training and other interventions can help people let go and live in the moment.”

Or, if you find that you really can’t switch off with intentional relaxation exercises, try other activities that absorb your mind and body. Doing things that put you in flow – such as puzzles, knitting, gardening, cooking, painting, reading etc – can all help give you some respite from your anxiety.

The full research, The paradox of relation training: Relaxation induced anxiety and mediation effects of negative contrast sensitivity in generalised anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder, is published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

How being by the seaside is good for mental health

Coastal living can reduce the chances of suffering from depression and anxiety.

Living close to the seaside has a swell of benefits for mental health, especially for people on lower incomes, according to a study from the University of Exeter.

The research, which looked at the link between coastal proximity and self-reported mental health using data from 26,000 adults living in England, was published in the Health and Place journal. The findings show that people living less than a kilometre had “significantly lower odds” of suffering from a common mental health disorder (CMD) compared those living 50km away. This difference was more marked in those from low-income households.

In England, an estimated one in six adults (17 %) surveyed were suffering symptoms of a common mental disorder, such as anxiety or depression. However, this survey is the latest in a series of studies that shows how exposure to natural environments – green as well as blue spaces – can support mental health and wellbeing.

Those benefits can include more opportunities for social contact and physical activity, reduced stress, improved air quality and immune functioning, lower levels of psychological distress, and a greater chance to feeling psychologically restored after a trip to the seaside.

Dr Mathew White, environmental psychologist at the University of Exeter, is calling on leaders to ensure more people have access to ‘blue spaces’ such as sea, lakes and rivers, because of the reported uplift to physical and mental wellbeing. He said: “This kind of research into blue health is vital to convincing governments to protect, create and encourage the use of coastal spaces. We need to help policy makers understand how to maximise the wellbeing benefits of ‘blue’ spaces in towns and cities and ensure that access is fair and inclusive for everyone, while not damaging our fragile coastal environments.”

This latest survey adds to a body of evidence collated by Blue Health that points to the benefits of blue spaces to physical activity, emotional wellbeing and mental health.

Five self-help tips to support your mental health

World Mental Health Day is an awareness-raising day that promotes discussion and understanding of mental illness, and gives us the opportunity to stop and reflect and consider ways we can improve our mental health.

One of the key definitions of good mental health, by the World Health Organization, is the ability “to cope with the normal stresses of life”. So much of life can feel like a drain, and you can feel worn down by all the demands put upon you. Yet I would add to this definition that it’s vital to know what stressors you can change – and which ones you can’t. You won’t be able to change what other people say and how they behave. But you do have the choice over whether to let things bother you. You also have the power to change the way you respond to people.

If you’d like to find some ways to feel better mentally and emotionally, but you’re not sure where to start, then here I suggest some practical self-help tips that can help build your resilience to cope with the “normal stresses” of life…

  1. Stop comparing yourself with others

Comparing yourself with others – whether favourably or unfavourably – in itself can imply that at heart you don’t feel enough. Perhaps not tall enough, pretty enough, rich enough. Social media makes it so easy to follow the lives of others – celebrities, friends, family, distant acquaintances – that life can easily become full of likes, retweets and photo-edited posts. Research has shown that too much social media – especially comparing your life with others – can lower mood and self-esteem and basically leave you feeling bad about yourself. You might fear you’re missing out, or that other people are simply having a better time than you. A first step towards self-acceptance, and therefore less stress, is to catch yourself when you compare yourself to others. Swap the ‘less than’ thoughts with a mantra: “I am enough.” Over time you may come to believe it.

  1. Tune into how you talk to yourself

We can be incredibly cruel to ourselves when we allow an inner critical voice to have its say.

  • “You stupid idiot.”
  • “You’re so clumsy.”
  • “You should be way better than this.”
  • “You’re useless. Give up now as you’ll never get the hang of it.”

If we spoke to others in the same way we speak to ourselves, we wouldn’t have many friends left. If you fear you may speak in a derogatory way like this, I’d encourage you to tune into this self-talk. Note how you speak to yourself. For every critical word, find a kinder phrase to balance it out. Try replacing ‘should’ with ‘could’, and ‘must’ with ‘might’, and see how differently you feel.

  1. Allow yourself some ‘down time’

Having time off doesn’t mean being lazy or selfish or a waste of time. The always-on culture means your life is likely to be spent clutching your phone, checking emails so you’re on top of things, and rushing between meetings. Home0time becomes work-preparation time instead of the opportunity to relax and unwind. Yet that lack of space in your life can lead to overwhelm and burnout. No one can thrive on the perpetual stress we put ourselves under. Try reframing down time as the opportunity to enjoy time, and see relaxation and reflection as a change to invest in your mental health.

  1. Express how you really feel

There’s nothing like speaking your truth to make you feel better. Expressing how you really feel – and having your truth heard and acknowledged – can be uplifting and a relief. Not speaking your truth can leave you frazzled and resentful, and can lead to behaviours that you don’t really mean to do, but end up coming out that way because your truth is trapped inside. I’m not suggesting you spout everything that comes into your head, but if there is something important you need to say then find a way to say it. Journaling can be a way of checking in with your true feelings, and gives you an opportunity to express your thoughts in a way that won’t be judged or thrown back at you. Using your journal can be an outlet to support you through daily stresses.

  1. Complete a task

Yes, any task will do. Whether it’s tidying up a drawer, signing off a document, booking a holiday, cleaning the bathroom. Completion is the antidote to chaos. Life can feel overwhelming to the point that home, work, family, friends, relationship all need something from you. Lots of loose ends – from unfinished projects to unmanageable clutter at home – can leave you feeling depleted. Give yourself back a sense of agency and purpose by picking a task that you can complete and tick off your list. Note how much better you’ll feel when you do.

Swimming has buoyant benefits for mental health, says study

Regular trips to the pool can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, according to research.
(pic credit: scusi)

A major study into swimming and mental health has revealed that regular trips to the pool can make life feel more manageable – and can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The YouGov research, on behalf of Swim England, shows that 1.4million people have reported improved mental wellbeing thanks to swimming. These improvements for nearly half a million people include fewer visits to their GP for mental health reasons, and a reduction in (or no further need for) their mental health medication.

Of the 3.3million UK adults with mental health problems who swim at least once every couple of weeks, when questioned how swimming impacts their everyday life, responded:

  • 43% say swimming makes them happier.
  • 26% are more motivated to complete daily tasks.
  • 15% believe life feels more manageable.

Ian Cumming, chair of the Swimming and Health Commission, said: “Physical activity in any form can have a positive impact on a person’s mental health, but swimming is unique because the buoyancy of water ensures everyone is able to take part at a pace that suits them. Research shows that simply being in water can be restorative, particularly swimming outside.”

The benefits of any exercise whatsoever have been shown to benefit mental health. Swimming is said to offer versatility, whether you want a leisurely lane swim or to set yourself time and distance targets. All the while being supported by the water.

Hayley Jarvis, head of physical activity at the Mind mental health charity, added: “We all know that doing physical activities like swimming is good for our bodies. But our physical health and mental health are closely linked and being physically active can also be very beneficial for our mental health too. If you’re more active there’s good evidence to suggest that, at most ages, there’s a trend towards lower rates of depression. One study has found that by increasing your activity levels from doing nothing, to exercising at least three times a week, you can reduce your risk of depression by up to 30%.”

Perhaps worth digging out your costume and heading to the local pool.

How mentoring can boost mental health

A mentoring relationship can lower anxiety for both mentor and mentee.
(pic credit: Rabia Elif Aksoy)

Mentoring junior colleagues can boost the mental health not just of the mentees but of the mentors themselves, according to a study by the University of Cambridge Judge Business School.

Anxiety, in particular, was seen to reduce in a mentoring programme for high-stress roles in the English police force (which was the main context for the study). Mentoring was shown to take a role that facilitated further discussion of tricky issues, and could involve other stakeholders and managers across the organisation, in a positive and meaningful way. While some officers may not want to speak up for fear of the mental health stigma, mentoring was able to help them deal with anxiety and other issues.

The study says: “Mentoring provided reassurance to the mentors by illuminating how other, often junior, officers also experience anxiety – thereby normalising their own experiences. By acknowledging that anxieties are common, both the mentees and mentors in this study appeared to be more comfortable discussing such issues and therefore in developing different coping mechanisms.”

Mentoring “fills a void”, says the study, and effectively helps to prevent mental health concerns from escalating. Above all, mentors and mentees reported the importance and relief of being listened to – and to recognise that other people were going through similar issues, helping them to feel more supported and consequently more effective in their role. Even more than that, the mentors found more meaning and purpose in their jobs.

Study co-author Dr Thomas Roulet, University Senior Lecturer in Organisation Theory at Cambridge Judge Business School, concludes: “The study suggests that a relatively inexpensive practice such as mentoring can help reduce anxiety among both senior and junior staff, and this could help organisations address the serious and costly workplace issues of anxiety and mental health. While the study focused on high-stress roles in the public eye, we believe that the findings may also apply to other occupations that also have anxiety-provoking pressures.”

The study is called Mentoring for mental health: A mixed-method study of the benefits of formal mentoring programmes in the English police force and is published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior.

A psychotherapist’s perspective on achieving work-life balance

Establishing your priorities and sticking to them can help you balance your life.
(pic credit: pixelbliss)

It’s National Work Life Week, an initiative created to raise awareness of the challenges facing working families and to encourage more measures to support their wellbeing. Though the stats aren’t great: separate studies show that a third of employees are happy with their work-life balance – and three-quarters of working parents say they’re suffering stress and anxiety from the lack of work-life balance.

I see a lot of people coming into my therapy practice on the verge of burnout because they’re trying to meet the relentless demands of other– and the high expectations of themselves. The drive to ‘have it all’ is leaving them depleted and satisfying no one. They find themselves constantly running towards deadlines, and having no time to enjoy the journey along the way. Before they know it, another year has passed and they still haven’t achieved what they long for.

While many work-life balance initiatives are aimed at changing the way employers structure the working day – for example, allowing for flexi-time and home-working – I believe there are some steps you can take as an individual to achieve more balance in your life:

Know your purpose

Why are you doing this? Why are you setting the alarm early to tick off all points on your routine and run ragged through your day? What are you getting out of work? Is this how you want to be spending your time? Do you feel joy and satisfaction in what you do? Having a purpose is what bounces you out of bed in the morning. Having work that is aligned with your core values feels effortless and is worth all the inevitable juggling you have to do. Your purpose may be to have a job that is a means to an end so you can enjoy your family life. Your purpose may be to achieve promotion and to climb the corporate ladder. Whatever your goal, it’s being clear on why you’re doing this that can remind you to keep going through the frazzled times – and it can help you make decisions that are tagged to your purpose.

Keep firm boundaries

A boundary is a counselling word, in effect, that means the lines you put around yourself that show the limits of where you’re prepared to go. In the workplace, a contract would outline the professional boundaries within which you’re expected to work. Personal boundaries are more about the way you operate and how much you give and take. And deciding where indeed you draw that line? How are your boundaries? Are you on time, focused, and good at meeting deadlines? Or are you rather slack in your timekeeping and end up rushing to complete projects because you’ve been distracted along the way? A key step to achieving work-life balance is to do work at work, and be home when you’re at home. Be fully present where you are. Aim to keep work and life separate so you can live them both as fully as possible.

Wait a heartbeat before saying yes

It can be so easy to get into the habit of saying yes to everything, especially if by nature you’re a people pleaser. Yet your work can mount up and any hope of balance flies out the window because you’ve said yes to that extra project. Saying no can be challenge: it can feel like a rejection of the person, and you may fear the repercussions on your career by saying no. Yet, if you’re tuned into your purpose, and are clear on where your boundaries lie, you will have more clarity as to which tasks you say yes to, and which you turn down. Say yes to what will enhance your life. Say no to what will burden it (and this is the same for things you take on in your home life as well as at work). Waiting a heartbeat before saying yes can help you assess your priorities and make the right decision for you and your work-life balance.