Mental Health Awareness Week rolls around every year in October, and every year there is a different theme. This year’s theme, ‘let nature in, strengthen your well-being, really resonated with us – so too with Macpac Ambassador, Dulkara Martig. In part 1 of this series, Dulkara shared her experience with depression, and the positive impact that nature can have on a person’s outlook. For part 2, Dulkara gathered quotes from a large group of friends and fellow adventurers of all ages and of all walks of life, to find out what time in the outdoors does for them. From 68 year old, ex-Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark, to 22 year old mountain bike instructor, Skye Urwin there was a widely accepted consensus: life is better when you’re outside.
I’d like to introduce you to a few people. Most of them are friends I regularly ride, run, tramp and adventure with. We all believe that spending time in nature is important for balance and living the best life possible. I asked them how they thought being in the outdoors positively impacts their mental well-being and here’s what they had to say.
Chris Coutts: “I’ve always wondered what it is about being in the outdoors that has drawn me back, time after time. Usually hobbies come and go throughout your life, but I have always found myself gravitating towards being in nature. It wasn’t until I recently discovered the practice of mindfulness that it dawned on me that being in nature free’s myself from the complications of modern-day life, and allows, in-fact forces me to be in the moment. The past disappears, the future is irrelevant, and I tune in on all my senses and enjoy the now.”
Helen Clark: “For me, being in the outdoors contributes to a sense of wellbeing: being out in open spaces, on coastlines, and in the snow and in forests always gives a sense of freedom.”
Anna Cottrell-Davies: “Spending time in the outdoors, particularly on my own, has really helped me develop my sense of self. It has helped grow my confidence, both in my physical being and emotional self. It has helped me trust my instincts and shows me that I am stronger than I give myself credit for. Being in nature is incredibly meditative for me. The New Zealand bush feels like a sacred space that is untouched by the chaos of today’s society. The simplicity of life in the outdoors helps me create mental space for myself. It’s just you and your thoughts out there and you have to deal with whatever comes up.”
‘Ranger’ Steven Peters: “The outdoors is my happy place… I need it to refresh and reset. I’m lucky that with my job as a Senior Park Ranger that I get to have a daily dose of the outdoors. These small glimpses of outside time during the week are great, but the real reset for my mental health is when I can have extended trips in the backcountry. Chat in the backcountry without distraction is so much more real. When I’m in the back country I talk about things that I wouldn’t normally talk about if I was in the city. For my own well-being I need at least a weekend each month in the backcountry. I’m not the type of person to go out on my own because I really do enjoy sharing these places with the people that I care about.”
Janelle Underwood: “For me there’s a very strong link between time spent outdoors and my mental health. I spend the majority of my working day indoors in an office-based job, so I personally need to go outside; it is my happy place, where I feel more relaxed. I find that venturing into the outdoors and nature provides a freedom from fast-paced living, and is where I feel most alive. When I go out and ride I always feel so so much better afterwards. I enjoy the physical challenge and I also feel like I’m reconnecting back with what’s more natural. It’s rejuvenating. I think we are innately connected to nature, so now in our rapidly changing environment, it is becoming increasingly important to stay connected to the outdoors, for well being.”
‘Chucky’ Peter Marriott: “As an engineer, I believe it is in my nature to try to solve problems. However, I have found I’m unable to solve mental health issues through reason and logic. Getting out into nature, away from technology, and skiing, biking, running or tramping with friends or alone, has been the most sure-fire way to help me be me again. I find myself turning off the phone and going outdoors whenever I’m struggling through hard times, it never fails to pick me up!”
Ashley Peters: “It turns out I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to mental wellbeing. My average everyday ‘enthusiasm for life’ levels sit at other people’s ‘best day ever’. I have recognized that having connections with people is what keeps my levels topped up. So I seek those connections. As a professional mountain bike instructor, I have found that no matter where in the world I go, if I have my bike and I meet someone else with a bike there is an instant connection. It’s like we’re part of a not so secret community of people who share an understanding for the outdoors. So for me, it’s the people in the outdoors that make my heart feel full and my mind race with crazy ideas. Anything and everything seems possible when I’m in the outdoors with others. We are better together.”
Michael Mitchell: “I struggle with Anxiety. It is a part of my personality. Sometimes it’s a quiet nagging, sometimes it’s a crippling blindness. Putting myself into the outdoors lets space, scale, light, breath, pause, and perspective into my mind. To sit with nature, free of judgement, is wonderfully humbling. To bring alpine breeze into lungs or moss under fingers. A reminder that the noise which can suffocate your thoughts is nothing next to millions of years of evolutionary beauty. A reminder that nature doesn’t give a damn about time sheets, facebook, or the price of unleaded 91. We are part of an infinitely enormous and spectacular system. Not the other way around.”
Jamie Garrod: “These days it can be easy to forget how simple life really is. Marketing is constantly thrown at us and we can be in constant contact with anyone, anywhere in the world. That’s until we get into the outdoors. For me the outdoors is a great escape. It’s like getting on an aeroplane where for those minutes, hours and days, I am totally present and nothing is going to change that in a hurry. As far as my mental well-being goes, it means that I can leave first world problems behind and focus on where I am, what the weather is doing, where I’m going to sleep and what I’ll have for my next meal. It doesn’t really get more simple than that. I love it. It brings me back to earth.”
Emma Woods: “Spending time outside is key for me and has been throughout my life. I grew up by the ocean and it has always been my place of refuge. Water clears my head and I try to swim wherever I go, it’s how I connect to a place. I never appreciated how lucky I was to have access to the outdoors until I had a head injury. Being stuck inside full time led to anxiety and later depression. I realised I was in a bad place when I couldn’t bring myself to get out of the house to the beach anymore. It was getting back in a kayak that helped me get back to me, helped me heal physically and mentally. I know my mental health is declining when I’m not motivated to get outside. I know how to help myself but I don’t want to. That’s when I make some changes, focus on my well-being and get in the sea.”
Quinn Hornblow: “The two main things that the outdoors contributes to my mental well-being are gratitude and motivation. It’s hard not to find things to be grateful for in the outdoors. A bird song, a ray of sun, a hot meal. Being grateful for the little things helps me stay positive. Secondly, having a goal and working towards it gives me motivation and a sense of accomplishment. Climbing a certain grade, riding a difficult piece of track, running to the top of that hill. I love arbitrary goals and am always setting myself mini milestones when I go out adventuring. Achieving goals and celebrating the small wins keeps me motivated and in a good frame of mind.”
Inga Booiman: “For me it’s so important to spend time in the outdoors while engaging in some form of physical activity. I like varied intensities of activity. I love being in the mountains and skiing, climbing, biking and running. I value the outdoors because it’s a space where I feel most at peace with myself and it clears my brain and helps me processes things. I also appreciate the simplicity and the very limited distractions…but the ability to engage in the natural world around me.”
Ben Wood: “So, I’m a kiwi living in Copenhagen, Denmark. I’ve gone from living in a place where the outdoors is super accessible, varied, world class and uncrowded to a city. A city where the outdoors is tame, sanitized, distant. I have known for a long while that I need to recharge outdoors on a regular basis but that fact has really hit home here. Regular connection to the outdoors regulates my mood (I get a little angry, frustrated, distant and impatient otherwise) and significantly positively contributes to my mental health. It gives me perspective without external influences and time to think. I need that.”
Liz Roberts: “My love for the outdoors began when I was a teenager, when I joined the tramping club at high school. It was the sense of freedom, the feeling of being fit and young, and the joy of being with like-minded people. You never stop enjoying the beauty of the natural world. I have continued to keep active in the outdoors since those days. The very act of dreaming about and planning adventures makes me happy and excited. Sharing the outdoors with friends and family and planning trips with them is a big part of my enjoyment. The feeling of satisfied fatigue after a long day of hard physical yards. The way in which sleep comes so naturally. Even simple food tastes amazing in the outdoors. I like to learn new physical skills, especially as I get older. There is a thrill in mastering something that has taken some time to learn. I love sports where you are so in the moment that there is no room for any other thoughts. Being in the outdoors removes you from your day to day home and work life. It gives you quiet time to step back and assess things in your life that need working through. I can’t imagine life without the ability to connect with the outdoors in some way.”
Jamie Sumner: “After a tough period in my life, which resulted in an anxiety attack and depression, I started to really take notice of my mental well-being. A major part of my healing process and maintaining that well-being has been spending time in the outdoors. Whether I’m out surfing, climbing a mountain or just out for a run there is always a challenge to finish the adventure. When you are out in nature you can’t just pull off to the side and say ‘I’m done now’ you have to get to the end. I believe these challenges help me to grow and become more confident in myself. As a visually impaired person I am very aware of sound. I find the sounds produced in nature help me to be present, calm my mind and connect me to the activity I am doing. The sound of the ocean when I’m surfing and the bird song in the mountains captures my attention every time.”
Skye Urwin: “The great outdoors – forest, mountains, rivers – it’s home. It’s where we belong and where we’re meant to be. Going outside gives me an instant calm yet invigorates me at the same time. It brings me back to what really matters: heartbeat & breath, of not only myself but of the planet. I often call the forest my medicine because of how absolutely fresh and new I feel in nature. It’s ridiculous that we need scientific studies to demonstrate how beneficial being in a forest and touching a tree affects our bodies on a cellular level. We all feel it. Get outside!”
Jayadev James Negi: “Being in the outdoors feeds some of my biggest human needs of curiosity, exploration, adventure and creativity. My senses are heightened and it allows me to reconnect to a truer, purer and more honest reflection of myself, forming a beautiful perspective of where, what, and most importantly, who I am. When chained down with mental illness, we often shy away from challenges, adventure and new things to test and learn about ourselves. We often keep ‘safe’ with what we know, ultimately hindering our growth both physically and mentally. Challenges are great to test our ability. But here’s the thing. A ‘challenge’ is something in which we plan and prepare for. Everything is known and calculated. Our strength is put to the test, for sure. However, going on an ‘adventure’ you are not in full control of the outcome. There is an element of unknown. You will have to make decisions, which could have consequences. You will have to make the right decisions that keep it an adventure rather than turning it into a disaster. This is where adventure gives you the opportunity to explore yourself. Forget about your struggles, forget about money, forget about work, forget about your social life, forget about trauma, forget about everything. Just for this moment in time on your adventure. Whether you come first or last in anything you do, what’s most important is that you grow, and come away with a better understanding about yourself.”
Sophie Watson: “I’ve always been aware that being outdoors has a positive effect on my well-being…I crave movement, and while going to the gym or doing yoga certainly makes me feel good, there is something so grounding, energising and joyful about being and moving in the outdoors. It nurtures and satisfies my mental well-being in a way nothing else can. It’s like my elixir for life! I know that when I’m feeling low, anxious, contemplative or even buoyant, heading into the bush, hills, ocean gives me the space to be mindful, grateful and helps me to reconnect with myself. Not to mention it’s often bloody good fun!”
Caleb Hill: “As a young boy I can always remember playing in the creek, climbing trees and sensing a feeling of anticipation as I pushed further and further away from home into the foot hills of Bishopdale, Nelson. Looking back, it gave me a sense of confidence, adventure and belonging. I felt vulnerable but comfortable. As an adult I still get this same feeling. Going into the outdoors gives me a reality check. Lets me know what’s important and puts things into perspective. To me personally when I am in the outdoors I feel connected. Connected to what is important and connected to the fact that we are just a person passing in time blessed to be able to experience this beautiful place.”
Elicia Milne: “Basing my lifestyle around the outdoors helps me to manage my well-being in a really constructive and positive way. Disconnecting from screens and my ‘normal life’ by embracing outdoor activities – whether running, tramping, or something entirely new – is how I have built up my mental resilience and confidence over the years. I love that regularly pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone helps me celebrate what our bodies can do and where they can take us!”
Derrick Newton: “Like most teenagers after high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was stressed, anxious and felt like I had to make this huge decision about a future version of myself, when I didn’t really understand the current version and what he wanted. As cliche as it sounds I didn’t really choose a job in the outdoors I just sort of found it. It was this place where things were real, but life was simple. Something as basic as walking on a track with a group of friends or students provided this great sense of accomplishment and connection. It was during these times on the ocean, up a wall or in the bush that I started to feel like I knew what I wanted, and what I was doing. My confidence grew in all other aspects of my life and I felt like I had a purpose, like I fit into something. Most people assume spirituality has something to do with religion but for me heading into wild places was a time to refresh and calm my mind. The feeling of lying on my sleeping mat under the stars is the closest I’ve ever felt to a spiritual experience. The sense of peace and excitement that accompanies simple experiences like these is the reason I believe the outdoors has incredible power to heal, and guide people even when they’re experiencing strife in their lives.”
Carla Braun-Elwert: “For all of my young life, I’ve had mountains on my horizon. The comforting chain of Alps surrounding the Mackenzie Basin harbours home. In a city-scape I feel more anxious and lost than necessary. Today, I need the outdoors more than ever to feel real. I sit at a computer screen painstakingly recreating virtual wildernesses, ensuring the pictures play without detectable human traces – smooth, focused, best animal behaviour selected, colour corrected, speed-ramped for maximal epicness. Underneath is my soundtrack from recorded wind, water, forest and animal sounds. Moving limbs through structure-free spaces, extending my comfort zone, campfire laughter; these moments are essential, reset me and remind me: I cannot edit life. Outdoor time is not always epic and “Instagram-worthy”. Thank goodness.”
Matt Wilkinson: “I can’t imagine not having the outdoors in my life. Recently I had a substantial shoulder injury. I spent far too much time watching Netflix and finishing a uni paper and not nearly enough time in the outdoors. I’ve been moulded by mountaineering more than anything else. I shifted to Mount Cook at 17 and lived there continuously for four years. Through mountaineering I learnt self control, serenity and balance. There’s something about just being in the mountains with the purity of climbing that has shaped who I am as an adult.
It’s great when, as a young person, you can find a compulsive passion. It’s not specific to mountaineering, or even the outdoors, but it’s something you can get completely lost in, where nothing else is relevant. Nothing is more important than what you’re doing at that moment. I think the purest form of complete absorption comes from circumstances which remove you far from everyday urban existence and the normal mechanics of people’s lives”.
Jane Townsend: “At a personal level, and throughout my career, time spent in the outdoors and relationships to places have provided me with creative ideas, stress release, a sense of belonging, and at times pure unadulterated joy. In January 2017 I moved to Nelson from Mount Maunganui where I felt a deep connection to the place. There were times I felt adrift and a stranger to this place, and I yearned to hear the waves breaking on Omanu beach and to look over the Pacific Ocean and the coastal islands from the summit of Mauao. Through exploring, learning the histories and stories, and connecting with local Nelson outdoor places, I have been able to feel a sense of connection and belonging to my new home. To walk or run along tracks surrounded by bird song, native bush and ancient Kahikatea; to paddle waka on the clear blue waters of Whakatū harbour and the Abel Tasman; to look across the Waimea estuary and Tahunanui beach and see snow-capped mountains; and to experience the thrill of getting some ‘air’ on my favourite mountain bike tracks have all had a positive effect on my well-being and sense of place. Embodied first hand physical experiences in special places has allowed me time on my own to problem solve any stresses in my life and come up with my most creative ideas. Experiencing outdoor places with others has also allowed me to make meaningful connections with others. Being present, in the moment, and in ‘place’ allows easy conversation and creates precious memories and stories to celebrate and share. We all want happiness and for me being in the outdoors, moving, learning from, and connecting with place/s is where I find mine! I have been fortunate that I have been able to share my happiness with family, friends and some wonderful young people.”
Kirsty Norris, 32 years old, works as a nurse.
“I enjoy my work as a nurse but it is an inside job and very mentally draining. Finding time and energy can be the hardest part about getting outdoors for me. I like to ride, climb, or just walk my dog along the beach. Getting outdoors is a type of therapy for me. It encourages my mind to refresh which gives me energy. It also gives me an appreciation for where I live and helps me connect to a new place when visiting.”