Combatting depression by opening your eyes to nature

Author: Stephen Balfour

Read Time:   |  1st April 2019

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Stephen Balfour shows how getting back to nature can be a powerful tool to help combat depression and low mood. 


A few years ago, the Australian activist James Aspey visited Glasgow. During the Q&A session following his talk, James shared a view that most animal advocates will suffer at some point from post-traumatic stress related to their activism.

Even if you avoid graphic content as I do, the knowledge of the immense suffering endured by animals at the hands of humans unquestionably takes its toll on your general mental health.

I’ve been fortunate to have relatively positive mental health during my life and I can only recall suffering from depression twice.

My first bout occurred in my late 20s when a series of events, losing my father suddenly, being seriously ill (for 2 years) and a difficult relationship break-up conspired which saw me struggle to cope in the aftermath.

I’m sure being able to self-medicate using a morphine drip following surgery, probably didn’t help matters either.

My second bout of depression occurred earlier this year when I experienced some trauma in my personal life. For those that have never experienced depression before, it’s a horrible feeling.

You don’t enjoy anything. You don’t look forward to anything. You revert back to the most basic operating mode which is survival.

combatting depression with nature

Feeling extremely fragile, part of my survival process involved trying to control and limit anything which may not help me with my recovery, this has included me avoiding graphic content of animal suffering.

The empathy I feel for animals has always seen their plight affect me deeply.

In my current circumstances, I’ve been viewing animals as a potential threat to my wellbeing, yet it never crossed my mind that animals could perhaps help provide some kind of salvation from the way I was feeling.

This revelation occurred when a trusted confidante told me that I had to actively seek out anything that provided a small bit of respite from the way I was feeling.

Her simple suggestions included listening to music, going for a walk or perhaps preparing my favourite vegan food.

Her advice was that when you are feeling at a very low ebb you must actively seek out small pieces of pleasure that provide you with a temporary respite, she warned me that if I didn’t seek these opportunities out, I would miss them.

In the space of 24 hours, three interactions, two with birds and one involving bats, helped bring a little light, into my life.

None of these encounters were earth shattering but they were hugely significant to me and how I was feeling.

My first encounter occurred on my way to work and involved a heron flying low over my car. I love herons. I think herons are one of the most stunning and graceful of birds.

I often worry however that their large size and impressive wingspan makes them extremely vulnerable to injury. The heron that flew over my car that day had presumably just benefitted from a very large feed.

She looked like an old-fashioned bomber plane and was definitely struggling to maintain her height. Her lack of grace tickled me and this innocuous ‘encounter’ made me smile for the first time in a long time.

Encounter number two that day actually happened first, but it took me a couple of hours to realise what had occurred and to see the funny side of it.

combatting depression with nature


I’ve currently got a couple of ex-battery chickens and a cockerel called Archie. What Archie lacks in height, he makes up in sheer aggression.

When Archie goes for you, he throws both legs up in a karate style kick, often when you’re least expecting it. That morning was no different, the only difference was I was wearing my work shoes when I stepped in the chicken run and not my usual wellies.

I had already been in my work for a few hours when I met one of the project funders to show him around the new museum that we are building.

During the walk around I had noticed him glancing down at the floor a few times. I waited until he had left and then looked down at my shoes to see dirty claw marks over my shoes and at the bottom of my trousers, I was partly mortified but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it amused me as well.

My third and final encounter occurred when I went for a run with my dog Clyde. I was running along a deserted cycle path beside the River Forth, as dusk was setting.

I was wearing a head torch but decided to keep it off as all around me bats appeared and then disappeared again in front of my eyes – at times they were so fleeting the sensation was like when you have a tiny bit of dirt/smear on your contact lens only for it to disappear when you blink.

I always think bats look the most delicate of creatures and find their movement patterns borderline hypnotic.

combatting depression with nature

The experience reminded me of the iconic scene in American Beauty when the character Ricky Fitts describes one of the most beautiful things he’s ever witnessed, a plastic bag being whipped up and carried by the wind: “This bag was just, dancing with me, like a little kid beggin’ me to play with it…  that’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know that there was no reason to be afraid, ever… it helps me remember – I need to remember. Sometimes, there’s so much beauty in the world – I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart is just going to cave in.”

To be effective animal advocates we need to ensure we look after our mental health and physical health. To counterbalance our knowledge of the horror and suffering that animals experience, perhaps we all need to work that bit harder to appreciate the beauty they bring to the world too.

The next time you’re feeling down, try looking up like I did, you never know what you’ll see.

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