How Birdwatching Can Help Manage Depression, Anxiety, and Grief

How Birdwatching Can Help Manage Depression, Anxiety, and Grief

Getty/Wanlaya Thipayaso

A mental health practitioner explores how her birdwatching practice supported her—and can support us all—through some of life’s greatest challenges.

No matter the day, always they beckon the morn. It begins when all is still and quiet and you can listen and heal.

Lying here, with eyes still closed, I am awakened reliably by their gentle chirps, hasty zips, and lyrical chatter. I recognize most of what I am listening to because they share the space around where I live—the wrens, song sparrows, house finches, mourning doves, hummingbirds, and spotted towhees, and in certain times of the year, the hooded orioles.

I am called to begin my morning meditation and gratitudes just as the dawn chorus ascends with the arrival of the sun, the bird song fuller and enveloping all around. Thank you for this that I am experiencing right now, thank you for all that I can do, thank you for life, and thank you for another day. I am so very grateful.

It’s a beautiful daily reminder to commune with my feathered friends as they begin their day—slow, gentle, melodic, and gradually building to a crescendo at the day’s full dawning. I join this dawn chorus every day.

I begin my day feeling lighter, happier, and already more connected to nature’s healing. I reflect on how connecting with birds has helped me to transcend my depression, anxiety, and grief and cannot imagine living without them in my life.

The Benefits of Birdwatching

Birdwatching is a practice and therefore needs to be done with regularity in order to reap the most benefits, just as when you learn to play an instrument, a new sport, or learn to speak a language. This holds true as well for the most effective strategies in addressing and maintaining your mental health. Birdwatching to help cope with your symptoms can be adjusted and customized to fit your own needs, and there is truly no wrong or right way, which is liberating in and of itself.

The fact that I am a mental health practitioner did not inoculate me from being mired in grief and depression. I prided myself on my ability to observe human behavior and accurately assess the psychosocial needs of others and outline appropriate clinical treatments to help them. And in the midst of my truest truths, I was able to know that I was secretly suffering and yet wasn’t able to fully actualize those same keen treatment modalities to help myself.

According to both the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hundreds of millions of people suffer from depression, chronic pain, and anxiety, which results in devastating isolation and a reduced quality of life. Worldwide, 1.5 billion people struggle with symptoms of depression and anxiety. Typically, we experience limited mobility, are frequently opioid dependent with subpar efficacy, and rate our quality of life as poor to very poor.

The good news in all of this is: (1) truly you are not alone in what you are experiencing and (2) you can learn to disrupt this vicious cycle by integrating birds into your life. You can engage with birds in different ways in order to reap the many benefits. Specific mental health conditions have been shown to respond favorably. Here we will explore three common ones: depression, anxiety, and grief and loss.

Managing Depression, Anxiety, and Grief With Birdwatching

One’s early beginnings can lead to a predisposition for depression, anxiety, and undertones of unhappiness and isolation just as much as being social, relaxed, and often filled with joy. Some can be attributed to what life hands you and your biology, and on the other hand and of equal if not greater influence, some can be attributed to environment and nurturance. Nature and nurture.

Ultimately, it’s how we manage our thoughts, feelings, and responses to circumstances, conditions, and states of mind that can define and impact how we behave and respond emotionally. Coping with adversity and high notes in life are in part learned through an almost innate transmission from caregiver to child, and so on through generations. This can include the triumphs and vestiges of cultural, political, and societal imprinting and can make it difficult to separate oneself from such legacies. In other words, we learn early on from those around us how to cope with circumstances, which may not always serve us well.

With all of these conditions, we experience somatic symptoms, meaning that they are physically felt in your body, and psychological symptoms, from your mind’s thoughts and through your emotions.

In the world of birdwatching and birding, looking up is a near necessity in order to see and even listen to birds, which is why, in part, doing so informed my book’s title. I often find myself leaning way back at the base of trees while looking up through the canopy’s crisscross of branches in search of birds’ flutters and artfully crafted nests. Time and time again, I repeat this endeavor and see feathered friends. I am not alone in this postural stance, as I have seen many others with binoculars and cameras up to their eyes also looking up.

My personal experience of looking up through my kitchen window in glorious wonderment of the yellow warbler connected me to not just the outdoors again, but most importantly, to my powerful healing from watching birds.

Ways to Connect With Birds for Healing

Grant yourself the gift of communion with the dawn chorus. Dedicate your first precious moments upon awakening, before you rise, to reflection and intention. Try to begin even before your eyes open and listen to the birds’ songs as they float along the still-early morning air, just before sunrise. What are you grateful for? Just as the birds alert you to their presence at the start of their day, the act of giving voice to your gratitude while immersing yourself in the call and song of the birds will create a positive mindset for the start of your day as well.

Choose a window or doorway that offers you the best vantage point to see outside.

Sit comfortably and watch for birds. Have no agenda other than to spend some time with the birds. Remember, start slow and gradually increase your time. Small steps will take you along the path.

When you cannot look or be outside, watch a video about birds in the wild. There are all kinds of videos available through bird clubs and organizations, streaming services, and social media platforms that share birds in their natural habitats. Studies support the benefits of viewing birds virtually for reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, among others.

Watch a bird feeder and/or water feature. Attracting the birds to spend additional time where you can view them on a regular basis can help to improve your mood.

Journal your thoughts while sitting and observing the birds. There is no right or wrong way to do this, and it is completely at your discretion. What are you feeling? What are you not feeling?

Sketch a bird that you take notice of the most. Remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect; in fact, a rough sketch is all you really need. The act of drawing your chosen bird is another way for you to connect with them and nature. It is relaxing and enjoyable.

Adapted and excerpted from KEEP LOOKING UP by Tammah Watts. Published by Hay House, Inc. Copyright © 2023 by Tammah Watts.

How Birdwatching Can Help Relieve Depression Anxiety and Grief

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