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.

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 forgiveness is the antidote to stress

davanti counselling forgiveness

A forgiving mentality can reduce your stress levels to zero, says study (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/StuartMiles)

There’s an old adage that says holding onto resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. The refusal to forgive another for the perceived wrongs they’ve done against you may keep you on the moral high ground, but ultimately you could remain stuck, stressed and strung out. Forgiving the other means letting them off, and so you hold on tight to your sense of what’s right and wrong.

Yet not forgiving can lead to a lifetime of stress, which can affect your mental and physical health. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is the antidote to stress. That’s according to research published in the Journal of Health Psychology, and reported in Time magazine’s article Forgiving other people is good for your health.

Researchers from Luther College analysed the stress exposure, lifestyle factors, propensity to forgive, and physical and mental factors among 148 people. They concluded that people who are more forgiving are also more able to handle stress, and that “stress degrades and forgiveness protects” health. They added: ” Developing a more forgiving coping style may help minimise stress-related disorders.”

How so? More research may be needed to determine exactly how forgiveness provides a buffer from stress – but there is something healing about letting go of painful and resentful feelings regarding a situation. It’s not about letting the person get away with it. It’s about not letting your feelings consume your life.

Lead researcher Professor Loren Touissant from Luther College said: “More forgiving individuals may have a more adaptive or extensive repertoire of coping strategies that mitigate the negative effects of stress on health… People with higher levels of forgivingness also have a greater tendency to use problem-focused coping and cognitive restructuring, and are less likely to use rumination, emotional expression and wishful thinking.”

In summary, forgiveness means making the decision to let something go instead of torturing yourself by over-thinking it and wishing life could be different.

Only the lonely? Five strategies to help tackle social isolation

Life is so short. Share your heart and spend time with people who count. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/StuartMiles)

Life is so short. Share your heart and spend time with people who count. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/StuartMiles)

Ever had that moment when you’re in a group of people you don’t particularly connect with, and you’ve never felt more alone? Find yourself retreating to your bedroom more and more, so you can avoid social situations and be on our own? Or just prefer your own company to other people’s?

These scenarios can happen to anyone. Yet while planning some ‘me’ time in your diary can help you build resilience and feel emotionally robust, it’s when these tendencies for ‘alone time’ overshadow the impetus to socialise that issues can emerge. Increasing feelings of isolation when surrounded by friends or acquaintances – or a bigger preference to be on your own, to the exclusion of other people – can lead to bigger problems down the line. Even health problems, according to a recent study. Loneliness can be a bigger killer than obesity or smoking 20 a day. And don’t believe that feelings of social isolation are just for the elderly, either.

Research from Brigham Young University highlights the health worries for people who are lonely or socially isolated – and that means anyone of any age, size, culture or disposition. The obvious but often seemingly unachievable antidote to loneliness is to reach out to to others. Lead study author Julianne Holt-Lunstad says: “We need to start taking our social relationships more seriously.”

But how to reach out socially when you feel unable or unwilling to do so? Here are my five tips for starting to combat loneliness: (more…)

More emotional support needed for the 6 in 10 mothers suffering postnatal depression

59% of new mothers suffer the baby blues, but 75% don't seek support from their midwife (image courtesy of m_bartosch/freedigitalimages.net)

59% of new mothers suffer the baby blues, but 75% don’t seek support from their midwife (image courtesy of m_bartosch/freedigitalimages.net)

Midwives believe that the main focus of postnatal care should supporting the new mum emotionally, and yet 75% of mothers do not turn to their midwives for help with the baby blues.

A Royal College of Midwives (RCM) survey has found that 75% of midwives think ‘organisational pressures’ determine the number of postnatal visits, while 60% think that mums need emotional support as a priority.

The percentage of women feeling down or depressed after giving birth  is 59%, says the survey, and midwives find themselves having to “paper over the cracks in an underfunded adn under-resourced postnatal environment”, which is having a “detrimental effect on the health of women and children”.

A quarter of the women who completed the RCM survey, carried out in conjunction with parenting website Netmums, say the maternity team had not asked them if they were coping during postnatal visits. Yet 24% of student midwives say they are adequately trained to deal with postnatal mental health issues, and 29% say they don’t feel confident enough to recognise mental illness or emotional illness in women who have recently given birth. The report recommends a review of midwifery training to ensure that they are equipped with the knowledge and skills to deal with these issues.

Sally Russell, co-founder of parenting website Netmums, says: “There is an urgent need for more support for new mums’ mental health. With over half the new mums in the UK suffering baby blues, we are in danger of letting vulnerable mothers slip through the net and suffer serious mental illness. Many women who are struggling often blame themselves for ‘not coping’, and so don’t necessarily know their midwife can help. As the RCM report shows, it’s vital we train more midwives to help vulnerable women at this crucial time. Every mum deserves to be treated with compassion and have the chance to talk about their mental health as well as their physical health.”

Postnatal depression can be an isolating and frightening experience for new mothers. If you feel you would like counselling support at this vulnerable time in your life, call 07956 823501 or email davanticounselling@gmail.com for a confidential appointment.