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The theme of National mental health awareness week is nature, and while this might sound a bit fluffy even a bit 1960’s flower power, I’m unashamed to say that walking in woods and allowing myself time to think has got me through the last year. 

Let me explain…

As this is an article about mental health let me expand on the rollercoaster of my mental health during the last 12-months. Like many, the first lockdown was in good weather and novelty, almost fun, and it’s fair to say that I enjoyed it. It was family time and I admit I enjoyed not having the “fear of missing out” ever-present in my life, as I knew we were all doing the same thing, sitting at home waiting for the pandemic to end.  

Summer came and I was optimistic about the future but then the second wave came and Christmas was cancelled, this was a heavy blow for me as I am a family man and I hadn’t seen my family for quite a long time and Christmas was always the annual opportunity to see each other, spend time together and catch up on the year before, so by autumn my mental health was strained and it was impacting my performance at work. Not outwardly, but enough for me to feel much less productive. In the workplace, this wouldn’t have shown as absenteeism, as I was in the office, it is something called presenteeism.

The second wave

Then January came. Sadly in January my mother passed away quite unexpectedly. The restrictions in place meant that we couldn’t see her freely before she died, and access was restricted even after she died, so we couldn’t grieve together as a family, we couldn’t hug or have a well-attended funeral, which my family and my mum’s friends wanted so badly.  

Needless to say, January and February were pretty tricky months, not least because January and February were also peak months for Generation CFO as we delivered our annual summit and awards, Generation CFO Live and the Digital Finance Function Awards.

See replays from Generation CFO Live, here!

Positive steps

During this time, I did two things to save my mental health, I talked honestly about how I felt, and I walked in the woods trying to observe the practice of forest bathing or something the Japanese called Shinrin Yoku

The benefits of doing both of these got my head together, made me more focused, and whilst it was an incredibly difficult time, it enabled me to carry my grief, keep going and deliver our most successful event yet, Generation CFO Live.

I am fortunate enough to live in the Surrey Hills, south of London in between Box Hill and Leith Hill, and if you have ever cycled in a London bike event the chances are are you have cycled through beautiful woodland to the zig-zag lane of Box Hill and through the ancient trees of Leith Hill and Leith Hill Tower, sometimes called Little Switzerland.

Not only is this a place of play for grown men and women in lycra on bikes, but a place of solitude for Chris Argent (busy dad, husband, dog walker and business owner) during the global pandemic.

Why nature?

I am an analyst by nature, I love decision trees and process, so when I started to hear about the benefits of woodland walking, I started to read up on the science behind it, to see If it was as beneficial as they say and more beneficial than just having a quiet moment in the pub, or meditating in a quiet room.

The science behind it

Well, it turns out that the Japanese, a heavily forested country with a culture that celebrates nature, has done quite a lot of research on this subject and the benefits boiled down to three things.   

  1. Being in the woods exposes you to smells that can relax your physiology immediately, much like walking into a spa full of essential oils, walking in pine woodland can expose you to essential oils that do exactly the same thing.  
  2. Walking through woodland can expose you to microbes from the soil that has a similar effect, it’s not all about sweet smells, earthy smells work too! And research has shown that after 20 minutes of walking in these environments, our resting heart rates drop significantly.
  3. Finally, and I would say most importantly walking in the woods for a period of time allows you time to think and to stop thinking or daydreaming. The Japanese recommend the practice of forest bathing should be around two hours long as this allows the walker or bather time to relax, to think, to let thoughts come in and out, and enough time to stop thinking or daydream.

Now I’m lucky enough to be a 5-minute drive from a beautiful alpine forest that I can walk in for two hours (by the way it’s a short train ride from London). I also have the added reason to go walking daily because we bought a dog during 2020 (yes, we were one of the thousands of families that did this same!), so I am lucky to do this on a daily basis and it really helped me mentally.

And this is why I invite you to do the same!  To make mental fitness part of your daily ritual.

Change doesn’t have to be scary

Work-life has changed, home life has changed, and change is hard, even in steady times. It requires effort to unfreeze the old habits, then makes a succession of sustainable small changes that really stick, before locking in on a new improved state.

And taking a long-term sustainable approach to mental health mental fitness and managing personal and professional change is the most sensible way to go about it. So, why not include practices like talking, walking, daydreaming and if you are particularly committed to the cause, do some Shinrin-Yoku today!

Other helpful resources worth a try:

BBC Radio 1 relax
Headspace