“I am not a psychologist, but I portray one in my role as the pastor of a small church.”
Actually, my wife and I have a fairly deep understanding of counselling techniques — which is a good thing, because studies show that much counselling and mental health work occurs in church settings. Many people are more comfortable speaking to a pastor than to a psychologist or psychiatrist. (Of course, we insist they do talk to medical professionals if their problems are especially serious.) The fact that most pastoral counselling is free doesn’t hurt, either.
It has been widely acknowledged that the current pandemic has created not only a crisis of physical health, but of mental health as well. It has been hard on us all. Anxiety issues and depression have become even more common. And while we may at times help others with their mental health issues, we pastors must also attend to our own emotional stability. Which is why I am so thankful for certain practices that have helped me in that area.
Among other things… I go birding.
Yes, birding can be a wonderful tool for maintaining mental health. That has certainly been my own experience, but I am not the only one who says this; an ever-growing body of evidence confirms this fact.
Why is birding such an effective mental health tool? Here are a few reasons:
The color green: Study after study has confirmed that time spent in natural settings is a powerful antidote to anxiety, depression and stress. Just living in an area with lots of trees, birds, and other natural elements increases emotional well-being and cognitive function.
Even surrounding oneself with the color green indoors seems to offer these benefits. Some scientists suggest that our brains may be hard-wired to relate the color with a place of food, shelter and safety.
Green is good.
Green is good in birds, too… like this Berylline Hummingbird.
Exercise: Many years ago, my wife hit menopause like a brick wall, and yes, anxiety and depression were part of the unwelcome package. Eventually, she turned to counselling and anti-depressants, and they did give her some relief. But the anti-depressants also produced weight gain, so she began a rigorous exercise program. She stopped using the medicines after four years, but still walks an hour every day. Today, she is sure that exercise was the biggest factor in her recovery.
Me? I like to walk, but only if I have somewhere to go. And nothing keeps me walking like the chance at seeing birds. Birds and gardening (and gardening for the birds, up at our church) keep me healthier in every way.
When I have climbed this mountainside, I may be tired, but I am never stressed.
Mindfulness: Many pastors joke about quitting every Monday, only to reluctantly allow themselves to be hired again each Tuesday. And pastoral longevity has a lot to do with learning to focus on whatever went right on Sunday, while overlooking whatever was disappointing. (There is always some of each to choose from.)
But however my Sunday went, on Monday I forget about it. That is because I am birding, which makes me live entirely in the moment for several hours. I focus completely on the sounds and sights that surround me. Which is a wonderful thing, since those sounds and sights bring me great pleasure.
Bright though they may be, you will have to pay attention to see a Golden-browed Warbler.
Mindfulness is the art of staying in the present, while shutting out our natural tendency to question the past, or worry about the future. Most of us are not good at not thinking about negatives; we need a positive to take their place. Birding works great for me!
Stress reduction: While we all would like to frame our birding in messianic terms, I actually find comfort in the fact that my outing is not that terribly important. My day will be great whether I see 80 species or only 30. Unlike helping people with serious problems, my birding day will be good either way. And the combination of lots of relaxation with occasional shots of adrenaline really gets the kinks out of my shoulders.
Green-striped Brushfinches give me a shot of adrenaline.
No people: All right, this one is all my own. If you don’t like solitude, find yourself some birding buddies, and you should be good. But when you are a pastor and also an introvert, a morning listening to nothing but chirps and warbles sure does make for an excellent detox.
Just me, my car, and a whole lot of green.
I no doubt missed some benefits. But I also have no doubt that birding can make an excellent contribution to your mental health. Go birding, and be healed!
All photos are from Pino Real or El Temascal, Michoacán, month of August 2021