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“Awe walks” for mental health

6 November 2020

I write, numb-nosed and icy-fingered, having just returned from what I’ve begun to describe as my lunchtime “wellbeing walk”. That is, the only excuse to get out and about during the current firebreak lockdown in Wales. However today’s walk was a little different having last night heard the “All in the Mind” feature on BBC Radio 4. The feature largely focused on the impact of the pandemic on mental health and how the negative effects can be compounded by factors such as isolation, loneliness, inequality and adversity (Tim Dalgleish, Clinical psychologist University of Cambridge). Uncertainty was highlighted as one of the leading causes for the growth in anxiety (Daisy Fanthorpe, Associate Professor of Psychobiology & Epidemiology at UCL) and as presenter Claudia Hammond put it, “with a long winter ahead wherever people live in the UK, it looks as though we have to find some way of dealing with uncertainty”.

This is where I was introduced to this idea of an “awe walk” by Virginia Sturm (UCSF Centre for Psychophysiology and Behaviour). The “awe walks” involved encouraging people to pay attention to the details of the world around them and to tap into a childlike sense of wonder. The research found that those who did this reported higher levels of positive emotions, which ultimately helped them connect with other people. It was found that just a 15 minute “awe walk” a week could have this effect. I couldn’t help but draw parallels to how mindfulness (that is, paying attention to the present moment) and cultivating gratitude for small things has helped me through episodes of depression and anxiety.

After another long week home-bound at the desk, it didn’t take much persuading to use today as an opportunity to try out my own “awe walk”. I opted to introduce photography as a method to capture things I noticed and appreciated. Perhaps the use of technology in the natural environment contradicted my purpose of being fully present on my walk, was it possible to experience “awe” in its full force if mediated through the lens of a camera? However, as a photographer I find the act of photo-taking to be an inherently mindful experience as it facilitates this act of noticing – noticing light, angles, framing, layers. I can’t help but feel I would notice the world less if I didn’t enjoy taking photos of it. However while using photography as an “awe”-inspiring method it made me wonder; Does your appreciation of what you are observing stop when you’ve captured the photo and move on? Or perhaps it extends the feeling of “awe” as you are able to re-visit the scenes that prompted such amazement, through photos?

Questions for next week…in the meantime, here are a selection of photos from today’s “awe walk” in Brecon, and an earlier walk I did of a similar nature just last month in Crete.

Visual methods on my “awe walk” 6/11/2020, Brecon, Wales

Visual methods on my walk 7/10/2020, Crete, Greece