Guest post - How Nature Saved My Mental Health

October 1, 2023

In this post we hear from Charlie Burley as he shares his own journey through teaching & struggling with wellbeing. Charlie's story is a relatable one and one which most teachers could take inspiration from. Please read on to find out how nature saved his mental health.

As someone who spends a lot of time outdoors, especially walking through woodland and any stretch of water I can find, I feel a bit biased writing a blog about how amazing nature is for our health…

But I haven’t always had this relationship with the outdoors.

In fact, for a long time the only exposure to being outside would be the sixty seconds it took to walk from my front door to my car, then from my car into school!

This all changed about five years ago when I went through a very tough period of poor mental health. 

I was teaching year six at the time, I had recently broken up with my partner of five years and my LSA, who had become almost like a grandmother to me, sadly passed away after a short battle with cancer.  Add into this mix the pressure of behaviour management, the rapidly approaching SATs and a distinct lack of boundaries around school and it was long before things came to a head…

One morning after breaktime, a child who found it especially difficult to regulate their emotions came flying into the classroom, arms aloft and voice very much raised. Before I knew it, pencil pots, paper and pretty much anything else they could grab was being thrown around the room.

It was a situation I’d dealt with many times before; I’d been teaching in for 5 years by this point.

But this time, something different happened. I felt an intense pang of chest pain, I couldn’t breathe and I felt as though I was going to collapse. Extremely scared, I shuffled out of the room, told my year leader I didn’t feel well and was subsequently sent home. 

This was followed by a visit from a paramedic, a day in hospital, ECGs, blood tests and consultations which all came to a very unexpected conclusion: I’d experienced a panic attack. I was diagnosed with chronic stress and was told a drastic lifestyle change was needed.

Very soon I had made some big changes: I reduced the number of coffees I was drinking each day from 4 or 5 to 2, I built boundaries around school and communicated these with my colleagues and, as you probably guessed, I started going for short, daily walks! In a few months I managed to almost fully recover from chronic stress.

So why am I telling you this?

This experience kickstarted a shift in my life that has impacted every corner of it. I began researching mental and physical health, studied to be a nutritionist, completed my Mental Health & Exercise Coaching qualification and started a business supporting teachers in living their healthiest, happiest lives so they can thrive both in and out the classroom. This experience led me to becoming The Teachers’ Health Coach.

Through this journey I have learnt exactly why getting outdoors and into nature had such a profound impact on my mental health and now I am extremely passionate about sharing this message with others.

The impact of nature on our wellbeing begins in the brain. Exposure to nature and sunlight helps to increase the levels of serotonin, an important chemical that’s responsible for everything from learning to happiness to regulating body temperature. If we don’t see enough serotonin in the brain we might experience overthinking, low mood, irritability or low energy. Alongside exposure to the outdoors, eating a range of fruits & vegetables and deep sleep can help us to regulate this important chemical. Simply being outdoors, taking some deep breaths and immersing yourself in the natural world rather than our modern, urban environment has been shown to reduce levels of our stress hormone, cortisol, and increase levels of serotonin.

Alongside serotonin, setting a goal of getting outside and achieving it will help to increase the levels of dopamine in our brains. Dopamine plays a major role in motivation and concentration. With low levels of this chemical we might experience lethargy, indifference, procrastination, anxiety or depression. We see dopamine levels increase in anticipation of a reward too, so it’s not about how long you spend outside, just the fact that you do!

Getting outdoors with friends or loved ones can be a brilliant way to increase the third and final brain chemical we’ll discuss today, Oxytocin. Oxytocin has been dubbed “The Love Hormone”. It’s responsible for bonding, empathy, connection and that feeling of belonging to the tribe, something we’ve evolved to crave. It is the antidote to feeling of loneliness. Unfortunately, in our hyperconnected world we’re actually experiencing more disconnection than ever: from loved ones, from nature and even from ourselves. 

For me, the discovery of the neuroscience behind the outdoors sparked somewhat of an “Aha!” moment. I finally understood the profound impact such a simple, accessible and affordable action could have on our mental wellbeing. I knew it helped, but now the penny had dropped as to how.

I know that it might seem a bit dramatic to suggest that going for a morning walk saved my mental health… But for me, it really did. It’s scary for me to think about where I might be right now if this small change didn’t become a part of my everyday life. 

This week, try spending just five minutes outdoors in sunlight each day. It could be popping your head outside whilst the kettle boils, going for a quick stroll at lunchtime or maybe taking that phone call outside. Listen to the sounds, breathe in the air and take in the sights around you.

There’s not much to lose, but a whole host of benefits to gain.

Thank you Charlie for sharing your personal story! If you would like to learn more about The Teacher's Health Coach or just add some inspirational teacher wellbeing content to your feed be sure to check out Charlie over on Instagram!