The Psychological Benefits of Foraging
Foraging is a fantastic way to improve the mental wellbeing of you and your family. It's an activity that creates bonds, enables you to learn new knowledge and skills, and gives you focus to be in the moment, among other things.
What is Mental Wellbeing?
Mental Wellbeing is as a measure of how happy or satisfied we generally feel in any given period of time. Defining mental wellbeing can sometimes be difficult, as lots of different factors may alter our perception of how happy or satisfied we feel over time. These include how we view ourselves (our self-esteem), our actual or perceived ability to do the things we want to do (our self confidence), the quality of our relationships, our ability to achieve the goals we may have set for ourselves, and our ability to gain focus when we need or want it.
Lots of things in our lives can influence our mental wellbeing on a daily basis, from kids, commutes, work, family, finances, dreams, ambitions, and our physical and mental health - we often know these things collectively and individually as stress. These stresses can be both positive (i.e. they have a good effect on our mental wellbeing) or negative (i.e. they have a bad effect on our mental wellbeing). As a good example, kids, especially, can be gorgeous blessings of loveliness on some days, and hellish nightmares of doom on another, and therefore provide us with healthy doses of both postive and negative stress on a regular, if not daily basis! This bipolar nature of stress means that some days our mental wellbeing is high, and on others, it's pretty low. Mental wellbeing is thereore not a constant thing; it fluctuates depending on how we feel - somedays we can feel on top of the world, and on others, we can feel miserable or depressed. On occasion, our negative stress can be quite prolonged, leading to us feeling deflated and unhappy for long periods of time.
How can we improve our Mental Wellbeing?
It is important to remember that mental wellbeing is only a general measure of our happiness or satisfaction, and it is unrealistic, if not impossible, to aim to feel happy all of the time. A sensible overall goal would be to recognise when our mental wellbeing is low and take positive steps to improve it. According to extensive research carried out by specialists in the NHS, there are a number to things we can do to improve our mental wellbeing and these are explained below:
The Five Steps to Good Mental Wellbeing
1. Connect with Others
Having positive relationships with others vastly improves our mental wellbeing. As a communal and social species, we innately require the physical and emotional contact of other humans. In doing so, we create bonds of love and friendship, feel valued, and share emotions, concerns, fun and laughter. Without this in our lives we experience isolation and loneliness, which is the biggest cause of depression in the Western World. Spending time with others creates a crucial support network that provides us with a safe, mutual outlet for expression and sharing of our thoughts, feelings interests and goals. This doesn't necessarily mean we need a large network of friends or family - on the contrary, it the quality of the relationships, rather than the size of the network that really counts towards our happiness. This means, more than anything else, that we have to dedicate time to build and maintain them effectively.
2. Be Active
Many studies have shown that being active increases our mental wellbeing. People engaged in sport or fitness will undoubtedly know that endorphines are released into the body during physical activity that make us feel good. Additionally, physical activity is often the foundation for achieving many goals, for example, of building a better physique, increasing strength or developing speed. Achieving these goals boosts both our self esteem and self-confidence, which in turn, increases our mental wellbeing. However, even mild forms of physical activity, such as a walk in the park, have been proven to have a positive effect on our mood. We all have likely felt "better" after a walk, even if we found motivating oursleves to go in the first place difficult. This concept has formed the basis of a psychological treatment for depression called "Behavioural Activation", which encourages sufferers to be active in order to help with periods of depression and low mood.
Physical activity outdoors has also been shown to increase dopamine levels in the brain, a chemical that is associated with how we feel and experience pleasure. This means that spending time outdoors has the effect of making us naturally happier, triggering our pleasure receptors and increasing our mental wellbeing.
3. Keep Learning
Research suggests that people who continue to learn throughout their lives generally experience more satisfaction, happiness, and resilience to stress than those that don't. Learning can and does take many forms, and those that engage with hobbies, interests, and knowlegde and skill-based learning activities, generally benefit from improved mental wellbeing. Continually learning is key to maintaining healthy self-esteem and self confidence through goal setting and achievement, it also improves our critical thinking and problem-solving ability, meaning more of life's challenges can be more easily managed or overcome. Having new experiences is also considered effective learning, so engagaing in new and unfamilair activites is a means of improving our confidence and our ability to apply existing skills to new situations. The pursuit of knowledge, particularly knowledge that is important or relevant to us, is therefore a very powerful wellbeing activity that continually engages our senses and can bring us great satisfaction.
4. Be in the Moment
Much of our stress stems from our thoughts and feelings about events or experiences that occured in the past, or that may occur in the future. Anxiety, or worry, is often strongly associated with uncertainty - the "what ifs?" connected with an unknown future, or perhaps a fear of something unpleasant from our past happening again. However, there is often rarely any stress in the here and now of the present moment, and when we tune ourselves in to this space, we often find that our thoughts are prevented from wandering off towards the anxieties of the past or future. We feel calm, collected, focussed, and most of all, accepting of however we feel without any judgement. This is known as mindfulness, and learning how to accomplish it, even if just for a few minutes, can have a huge impact on our mental wellbeing by giving our brain a respite from it's constant worry-filled whirring.
5. Give to Others
Most of us will have some awareness that small and large acts of kindness, like giving gifts, spending time with elderly friends and loved ones, volunteering, giving change or food to the homeless, or supporting a charity, has the knock-on effect of making us feel good. Selfless acts of kindness like these provide us with a sense of self-worth, adding value to our own lives because we see ourselves making a difference to the lives of others. They can also provide us with much needed perspective, allowing us the space and understanding to see that despite our own problems, there are often others who are much less fortunate than ourselves and we have the power to do something about it through our own actions. Kindness has an amazing ability to move and inspire us, even if we are not the ones involved in the process - we've all seen or heard of others' kindness and felt very emotional as a result. Kindness is therefore a very powerful and readily accessible wellbeing activity, and doesn't need any special tools, skills or abilities to perform.
The Five Steps & Foraging
As a wellbeing activity, foraging is very unique as it broadly encompasses all five of the steps to good mental wellbeing. It encourages relationship building, being active, learning new skills, mindful focus, and giving to others, in one super-activity.
Connecting With Others
Foraging can be both a solitary and a social activity - you can forage alone, with friends, or like me, with your kids, partner, or both! Foraging as a family group really opens up plenty of opportunity to spend lots of uninterupted time together, to bond over a shared interest, and create positive relationships that really improve mental wellbeing.
For me, foraging has created dedicated family time, which was something I really needed. Prior to getting into foraging properly, as a busy wedding photographer, my weekends were taken up with shoots and my weekdays were consumed by editing and the running of a small business. I loved Arthur dearly, but often found that the time I dedicated purely to being him was very sporadic, which would often lead me to worry about our relationship. Although I was very proud of the photography business I had built, I came to realise that I was actually very unhappy because I wasn't spending nearly enough time with this wonderful little boy. I was missing him growing up and I needed to do something to make sure my connection with him was strong and meaningful. I endeavoured to make some changes to the way I ran my business, which thankfully gave me more free time, and decided I wanted to use this time to do something with him on a regular basis that the two of us could share together. I had fond memories of foraging for blackberries with my Nan as a child, so decided that I would take Arthur out to forage for bilberries in the forest were we lived and see how we liked it. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, we packed a rucksack full of sandwiches and headed out into the wilderness together, and the rest, as they say, is history. Foraging has created something magical for me - a space to create bonds, learn and have fun together. Arthur is my foraging buddy, and our relationship has so much more value than I ever thought possible. My wife, Christina, and Sybbie also regularly join us, and in September every year we all embark as a family on a two-week foraging holiday to the Highlands of Scotland. Foraging has given me the ability to connect with my family in a very meaningful way and I absolutely wouldn't change it for the world.
“... The family is one of nature's masterpieces ...”
It goes without saying that foraging makes you active. It does encourage you to get up and get out, but it's not just physical activity for the sake of it! It provides you with a good reason - a solid motivation - to explore the woods, forests, parks and moorlands in order to find nature's bounty and bring it home for dinner! Foraging is generally not intense physical exercise, on the contrary, it often consists of slow, focussed and purposeful walking, which is ideal when you're out with young children, but like we saw in the five steps above, being active doesn't have to be intensive to provide wellbeing benefits. According to the NHS, we should be undertaking at least 90 minutes of mild-moderate exercise per week, and foraging certainly filfills this requirement, helping to increase your physical health as well as your mental wellbeing. As such, it's perfect for those of us that want to be more active, but don't desire to engage in very vigorous lifestyle activities, like cycling, running, or competitive sports.
I've also found that foraging with Arthur has really brought out the inner-child in me, too. I love being the "teacher", and showing him the wonders of the wilds, but I also now enjoy and do things I wouldn't normally do if I were ever out foraging on my own - like tree climbing, playing pooh-sticks or chase, doing rolly-pollies in the leaves, jumping off logs, and telling stories under beautiful old trees - both active and inert activities. If I'm honest, whenever I do get a chance to forage on my own, I certainly miss Arthur's amazing ability to make me laugh and entice me into having some fun when he's not there with me, despite the peace and tranquility that I experience without him! Anyone with a toddler will tell you that kids are naturally active, and therefore have a tendency to bring more activity out of us as well!
“... In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks ...”
Foraging provides us with so many opportunities to learn! We often start our foraging journey with only a very limited knowledge. Perhaps, like me, you remember foraging for blackberries, raspberries or elderflowers with your parents or grandparents as children, and bring only this knowledge with you when you begin. Some of us may have no prior knowelge at all, just a keen interest in the idea of foraging, and nothing much else. Before long though, your foraging knowledge grows as you slowly but surely find more wonderful edible plants and mushrooms, adding them to your knowledge-base of finds as time goes on. It's an amazing never-ending journey of discovery that can really engage your brain!
Arthur and I have been foraging for a number of years now, and we are always coming across things we've never seen before. I also must admit that on occasion I've even had dreams about wild plants and mushrooms, so they must be having an impact on my brain during the day! There truly is so much to learn - from how to identify them properly, understanding their habitats, growth patterns, flowering or fruiting times, their toxicity, or the many trees that certain mushrooms grow in association with, as well as how to recognise their shapes, stems, colours and form, their aromas, medicinal properties and taste, and the magical folklore associated with them - there seems to be fascinating new things to know at every step. It doesn't stop with the end of the forage either, when we get our finds home, we can then learn how to clean, prepare, cook or preserve them, or do other activities, like take spore prints to further aid identification or make art with the kids. The list goes on and on if you want it to, bringing you so much self-satisfaction and a sense of genuine achievement. The Expanding Foraging Knowledge section of the website contains a more indepth look at how foraging can exand your knowledge in related areas.
The outdoors is also a wonderful natural learning environment for children, too, and they can learn so much about nature whilst out on a forage, such as the changing seasons, the life cycles of plants and animals, how trees and mushrooms interact to create the woodland habitat, the fundamentals of natural medicines and poisons, or the diversity of local wildlife species in the area. For more information relating to the amazing things kids can learn from foraging, please see the Natural Education section of the website.
“... Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better ...”
Being in the Moment
One of the most significant benefits that regular foragers often report is the effect that being out in nature has on their capacity to feel calm and experience true mindfulness. As an engaging activity, foraging has a fantastic ability to pull you out of your thoughts and into the present moment. The thrill and anticipation of the hunt forces you to actively be present, taking note of your surroundings as you search for those often elusive plants or mushrooms. When you find something of interest, you are focussed on the little details that can aid you in a positive identification, and later, when you get it home, further focussed research can engage your brain in understanding how it can be prepared and eaten. From start to finish, you are in the moment, forgetting the external stresses of your day. It's a wonderful experience that has very lasting effects on your mental wellbeing. As a foraging friend of mine so eloquently put it:
"Walking in the woods and looking for fungi is absolute escapism for me. It's like a drug. I walk slowly, and focus on all the tiny things around me. I focus on the smells of the mushroom, the taste, the feel. They engage all my senses. I then get lost in a deep hole of identification. Searching through books, looking at the tiniest differences and features. It engages my brain. I can pass hours like this completely forgetting my anxieties. I think the important thing for me was the realisation that it isn't my life which is important, what's important is being part of life, right in that moment. Observing how all life around you interacts and depends on one another. It's so clear to see when you are in the woods."
This mindfulness comes very naturally when you're out on a forage - you don't need special training to experience it, just an active interest in what you are there to do. Even when you have the added distraction of children to contend with, bringing them over to explore and identify the find together creates a shared mindful experience for everyone present, an engaging place where the whole family is sharing a moment with themselves, each other, and with nature. I find children to be very mindful - they are always focussed on what they are doing and they experience and express emotions without any judgement about what it means to them, or to others. They often lack the anxieties of an uncertain future and accept the here and now of life at face value, simply going along with it however it makes them feel. I am often amazed by the simple matteroffactness of how Arthur experiences the world, and often find that I connect with those same emotions too, whenever we do things together. Being with and around children is a wonderful mental tonic for an adult, and we can learn so much from them when we choose to be present and in the moment with them.
“... Playing together in nature is as much about us as it is about the child. Children get to celebrate and be themselves, while we are reminded of our inner child – the essence of who we are ...”
Giving to Others
Foraging provides lots of opportunity for you to show kindness to others. When foraging with your kids, you're gifting them your undivided time and attention - time to learn, time to have fun, and time to just enjoy being with you - it makes them happy, which makes you feel happy and fulfilled, too. You also share your knowledge with them as it grows, partaking in the time-honoured tradition of passing-on foraging knowledge to the next generation. As a family, we often find ourselves gifting some of our foraged finds to others, such as taking a basket of chanterelles or a bottle of elderflower cordial to a friend or neighbour, or using our finds to create especially thoughtful Christmas or Birthday presents for others in the form of wild foraged home-made teas, dried herb boxes or even whole meals. These selfless acts bring extra meaning and add value to your foraging activities, which have a truly positive impact on your wellbeing as a result.
Other Wellbeing Benefits
The Five Steps to Wellbeing offer a great explanation of the main psychological benefits of foraging, but other wellbeing concepts also exist that can be directly applied to this wonderful pasttime.
Pleasure from Aesthetics
As a photographer, I really appreciate this one. One of the main aims of a photographer is to capture a beautiful moment in time. When a person looks at a beautiful image, the pleasure receptors in their brain are activated, which makes them feel good. You've probably experienced this when looking through photographs, but the exact same thing happens when you see a beautiful scene in real life! It's easy to forget that your eyes and brain are effectively a camera - your eyes act as lenses to the world and your brain processes the images they capture, saving them to your memory for recall later. Foraging takes you to some beautiful places - make sure you turn your biological camera on and really enjoy the magical scenes it captures!
Foraging is Hygge
Hygge is a Danish word that roughly translates to a feeling of "cozy contentment". The concept is part of the national identity and culture of Denmark and is practiced by the population en-masse. Broadly speaking things that make a person feel cozy, happy and contented are described as Hygge, and are highly desirable in life. This encompasses many things, from campfires, walking in nature, foraging, and spending time with friends, to the aroma of freshly-ground coffee, eating hearty food, open fires, or curling-up in your favourite chair to read a book. Wrapping up warm and heading out into the crisp Autumn air for a forage is certainly Hygge, as is getting back home, taking your wellies off and warming your bum in front of the fire with a hot chocolate. What bliss!
Forest Bathing is the english translation of a very popular Japanese relaxation technique called shinrin yoku. It is basically a method of outdoor meditation that combines deep breathing, mindfulness techniques, and connecting with the sights, sounds, colours and textures of the forest. It was developed in Japan in the 1980s and has since been incoroprated into the country’s national health programme. Although people had been taking walks in the country’s forests for centuries, studies showed that such activity could reduce blood pressure, lower cortisol levels and improve concentration and memory. A chemical released by trees and plants, called phytoncides, was also found to boost the immune system. Forest Bathing certainly goes hand-in-hand with foraging!
Time in nature can allow a person to experience "Oneness" with nature, a feeling of interconnectedness – a transcendence of boundaries or dividers. Most people who have experienced oneness say they’d choose to live permanently in this state of mind if it were possible. Oneness is described as perhaps the most profound and sublime state a human being can ever achieve - a blissful (although usually fleeting) sensation where we are overcome with joy and multi-directional feelings of intense connection. In this state, we become aware of the inherent goodness of all beings and gain the ability to see beauty everywhere, in everything and everyone.
“... If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything ...”
Sprituality & Belief
In some religions, connecting with nature, and indeed, foraging for herbs, is a central element of the faith. Followers of various forms of Paganism, such as Druidry, Wicca and Hedgewitchery, often forage for herbs, plants and mushrooms for use in spells, incantations and other rituals, and many festivals celebrate and encompass nature and the outdoors, such as Beltane and Samhein. Anyone that has Faith of any kind will tell you that sprituality and belief are very powerful promoters of wellbeing, providing comfort, happiness, hope and a sense of purpose, and for those with an interest, foraging can offer an insight into the heritage, traditions, and lore of old.
“... What I know of the divine sciences and Holy Scriptures, I learned in woods and fields. I have no other masters than the beeches and the oaks ...”
The Five Steps to Wellbeing
Sprituality & Belief