Is birdwatching the right prescription for anxiety?

Photo by Espen Helland

I was surprised to see a headline earlier this month revealing that Scottish doctors are now prescribing birdwatching to their patients.

This struck me as really quite progressive — and just one more reason I’m pretty proud to hail from Scotland.

But as someone who is actually both a birdwatcher, and a sufferer of stress and anxiety, it did surprise me.

As a sufferer of stress and anxiety, almost all activities — on a bad day — could elevate my stress levels.

Plus, depending on what kind of twitcher you are, I can’t say that birdwatching is entirely relaxing…

  • My partner and I once drove around the Outer Hebrides of Scotland on a birdwatching trip with a goal to check off 100 birds on our list. It was beautiful, but we only saw about 76 species — the failure to meet the goal was crushing.
  • We once drove a moped around a remote paradise island in Thailand, looking for hornbills. We didn’t see any. It was quite disappointing, and that’s what how I remember that day.
  • On holiday in Tenerife a few years ago, I was indoors drying my hair and missed night herons flying over the apartment. We never saw them again, and to this day, I’ve still never seen one, and I’ve never forgotten it either.

There’s the days spent roaming the countryside just looking for “normal” birds, and not finding them.

The little b***ards fly away just as you spot them, or worse, they just don’t appear anywhere near you.

And don’t get me started on migration.

Recently, when we had the privilege of staying on Loch Ness for a whole month, in autumn — one of the most beautiful seasons, a fellow twitcher said to us in passing, “nah forget it, there’s nothing there at this time.”

It does make me wonder why I do it sometimes.

Some people find it boring, this slowing right down and looking at what’s around you.

Spending time immersed in the natural environment. Learning about it. Experiencing it changing over the course of a year, how it comes full circle.

There’s a certain magic to it which totally absorbs me.

And while I have found it stressful at times, it has also been enormously rewarding and a lot of fun.

In all my travels throughout my life, the trips where I’ve been able to get out and about birdwatching have been that much more memorable. There’s a depth to it, getting involved with nature, that nothing else really compares to.

It’s possibly the same reason people dive, or climb.

To get closer to something.

Going back to the prescription though.

The GPs refer to the numerous studies which cite the physical and mental benefits of connecting with nature.

I can’t deny the truth in this.

Plus, nature is a lot cheaper than therapy.

I hardly blame the NHS for trying.

But — and I’m speaking from personal experience here — by the time the person has identified that they need help, and sought it out, by the time they walk through your door, help is what we give that person.

All the help they were brave enough to seek out.

For me, stress and anxiety was impacting my life to such a degree that if a doctor had said to me, “have you tried going for walk?” I think I’d be tempted to walk out and jump off the nearest seabird colony cliff.

I needed more than a walk.

I needed my life to be different. Less stressful.

We need to take a much, much wider view of stress and anxiety.

We need to consider the whole context in order to decide on the right course of action — it’s likely going to be a cocktail. Medication, behavioural therapy, counselling, they all have a place.

And yes, birdwatching and walks and spending time in nature most definitely have a place in self care, which has a huge impact on mental health.

Personally, I choose not to take prescribed medication to deal with my stress and anxiety.

CBT also never worked for me.

I had to get to the root of the issue.

I had to deal with it at a lifestyle level.

I had to understand why I was stressed in the first place.

When I paid attention, I noticed that when anxiety or stress strikes, I would feel disconnected, I shut down — sharp and fast.

Rekindling this connection is vital — and spending time in nature is great for this.

It’s nourishing, refreshing, revitalising. It’s a totally different education.

And if you can step outside of your over achieving, ambitious, competitive self, there are huge benefits to watching birds. (Honest.)

It made me see places with new eyes. In fact, I can go repeatedly to the same place, the same hill, the same car park even, over and over and over again, at different times of the year, or even the very next day, or later on the same day, and have a completely different experience. There is true joy in this — it taught me to be present.

It taught me patience.

It improved my memory.

It taught me to pay attention to detail.

It taught me the value of practice — repeated practice, over and over again, over time, to get better at something.

It connected me with nature and this all helped me to connect better with myself.

And, yes, I find it extremely joyful.

Every time I see a robin, or a starling, or the first time I set eyes on a colourful tropical bird, my soul lights up.

And, just to clarify — I’m not really a list ticker-offer, I promise. I am not someone who goes somewhere or sees something just to check it off — but it can be fun.

That “crushingly disappointing” trip around the Hebrides was actually a rich, deep, immersive experience. I felt so connected to the landscape and the wildlife in it — and 3 years later I still remember it in microscopic detail.

Standing on the ferry deck watching seals, dolphins and shearwaters. Driving the raptor route, camping on the beach, swimming in the sea, the ice creams, beers round the camp fire, chats with other people we met on the road, and seeing short eared owls, hen harriers, my first ever corncrake. I remember the weather, the light, all the feelings I experienced on that trip.

I remember it all in vivid detail because I felt so connected, I felt so alive.

There’s something in here about having your eyes lifted to the skies to invoke happiness or joy. NLP practitioners will often ask you to remember the colour of your door when you are stuck in a negative thought pattern, because it is likely to cause you to look up in order to recall the memory.

And lifting your gaze just so happens to make you feel better.

So as long as your binoculars are pointing skyward — you may even have a positive experience just by looking up.

And if you can find the bird in your field of view, and even better, identify what you are looking at — that is quite an uplifting, even life changing, experience.

So is prescribing birdwatching is a good idea?

Sure.

Everyone should try it.

But really at a much more profound level, what we need in society — what we need as individuals — is to bridge that connection back to nature — and to ourselves too. Losing it is indeed anxiety-inducing.

For me this has been as much about “knowing thyself” as it has been knowing wildlife.

And so I recommend it to anyone and everyone — rediscover your appreciation and enjoyment of nature, and understand our connection to it, our inter-dependence. It’s fascinating. And it’s great self care.

Dealing with stress or anxiety is perhaps a signpost, a symptom of this bigger issue, that we are losing our connection to our surroundings.

It would be a great shame to lose it entirely.

Founder, feminist, entrepreneur, coffee + self care

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