It is a liquid-warm, sunny, June afternoon in Durban, and I feel unsettled in the wake of a looming stricter lockdown to level 4. Fortunately, I can still access a public garden under level 3 restrictions. So I head for the beautiful Durban Botanic Gardens, on the Berea, to be in nature, a deep source of comfort and a space to sketch and draw. I nature journal in solitude, breathe and get a handle on my anxiety. This is my personal respite. Like John Burroughs wrote
“I go to nature to be soothed, healed and have my senses put in order.”
I make this healing experience an integral part of my work as a health professional in psychology. As rapidly growing numbers are succumbing to Covid-19 in the thick of the third wave of the pandemic, it creates significant emotional distress and challenges to mental health and psychological resilience. In this catastrophic time, managing our mental health is an important part of achieving overall health as it affects how we think, feel and act, relate to others, make choices and handle stress during this crisis. Fortunately, many practical steps can be taken to manage and improve physical and psychological well-being.
As a practising psychologist, of many years, I have always drawn on integrative approaches to healing. Hence I enjoyed developing a practical tool kit session on managing the uncertainty and fear of the pandemic. I became acutely aware of the potential of nature journaling as a mindfulness activity and stress reduction tool. It is now firmly included as a Creative Coping (Visual Art and Writing) mechanism in my repertoire of well-being activities. I am reminded of psychiatrist Servan-Schrieber (Healing without Freud or Prozac) whose non-pharmaceutical prescriptions for his depressed, lonely geriatric patients was keeping a pet or growing a house plant.
My practical tool kit session focuses on coping mechanisms that include mindfulness techniques that focus on:
Physical wellbeing - exercise, diet and sleep
Somatic coping - breathing, muscle relaxation
Cognitive coping- thought restructuring
Emotional coping - building emotional resourcefulness
Nature journaling offers yet another opportunity to engage in a creative, fun and relaxed way to achieve mindfulness and well-being to cope with the anxiety, stress and unpredictability of Covid-19.
Mindfulness is the act of focusing your attention on the present moment and being intensely aware of what you are feeling and sensing in that moment, without judgement or interpretation. Mindfulness practice slows you down, clears your mind, helps you to focus, and awakens your senses. It is at this point that nature journaling intersects with the central tenets of mindfulness: being in the moment and sharpening your focus to achieve a state of “flow”.
Nature journaling observes similar practices. You arrive, relax, observe, connect, and focus on what is happening in the here and now. Through a sensory check, you “arrive mentally where you are physically”. You become aware of the natural elements: wind, sun, temperature, sounds and the smells. Finally, when you follow the three prompts “I notice… I wonder… It reminds me of …” (John Muir Laws), you have immersed yourself in an act of mindfulness, entered the state of “flow”, connected your inner thoughts, body sensations and emotions.
Nature journaling is the practice of drawing and writing in response to a subject in nature (plant, animal, weather) using the medium of art, science and language. Based on observation, acute awareness and knowledge of the environment, a story is created and produced. Writing, like drawing, is an art form, a self-soothing, creative reflective exercise that clears thinking.
Story telling through journaling of Covid-19 experiences has been encouraged as a way of communicating by recording one's observations, thoughts and feelings as a means of dealing with this crisis. This is because writing down experiences helps process information and develops insight and new awareness. In writing, you re-author your story and create a new narrative. You find meaning and healing through telling stories as it gives you a voice. It is a narrative therapy technique, a predominant way I work within in my clinical practise as psychologist. Nature journalers advocate that journaling nature “gives you a chance to sort out the details more clearly in your head” and allows you to reflect and gain new perspectives of nature and yourself. Drawing, like writing, is a creative form that helps us to get in touch with our inner selves and energies and emotions: negative and positive.
Nature journaling creates an awareness of the interconnectedness within ecological systems, and between plants, wildlife and seasonal patterns through meaning making of subjects in nature. There is such reassurance in observing predictable patterns, especially during a time when our very existence is under threat. Social isolation may have created emotional numbness and detachment from others. Nature journaling creates the space to forge relationships and deep connections with nature as you observe and record and become fully engaged in the here and now. Connecting with the community and faith-based organisations at some level has been encouraged as a means of staying linked. It occurred to me that as part of a local nature journaling group I have forged a connection with people linked by a common purpose, my nature journal “buddies”. There is no space for isolation when you connect to sources outside yourself, when you learn together, share efforts and exchange knowledge. Seeking connections is a fundamental human need that builds community.
Observing nature elicits wonder, awe and curiosity. Through questioning, sharing and researching one’s observations and recorded information, it creates a joy and excitement to learn and discover more. Remaining curious and aware of oneself and others and events is foundational to mental health.
Well-being literature recognises connecting with nature as a spiritual exercise. Nature journaling, however, broadens this experience to create a deepened meaning of spirituality and an increased appreciation of life in all its forms. As an art form and scientific endeavour, nature journaling is a grounding experience, a focal point to direct energy, thought and reflect on nature. In short, it is a form of meditation, an act of mindfulness.
Wordsworth captures this experience in “Lines written in early spring”
“The birds around me hopped and played
Their thoughts I cannot measure,
But the least motion they made,
It seemed a thrill of pleasure
The budding twigs spread out their fan
To catch the breezy air
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.”
Shireen Mohamed, PhD