Mental Health

British Army veteran's guide to the healing power of nature

Veteran Tony Thorne has some useful advice for those searching for peace and wellbeing.

A former soldier turned mindfulness and motivational coach, whose varied career has included becoming a monk and then a funeral director, has spoken of how immersing yourself in nature can help improve your mental health.

Tony Thorne served with the Royal Hampshire Regiment for 16 years but after transitioning to civvy street in 1998, found he had lost his purpose in life.

This feeling took him on a path of discovery that ended with him spending three years as a novice monk in a Benedictine monk's monastery. He said: "It gave me grounding, gave me an insight into being calm, being silent and allowing things to materialise with me."

However, one day while praying, Tony was overwhelmed with the feeling that he should not be a monk anymore and find a new purpose, so, in another unusual career twist, he pursued a career as a Funeral Director after a family friend offered him work in his funeral home.

Two decades later, after one particularly difficult funeral, the veteran says working with death every day caught up with him and he again needed to try something different.

His passion for well-being and meditation combined with a desire to help people mourning the death of a loved one inspired him to become a mindfulness and motivational coach to support people in grief.

It was at this point that he and his partner left the UK to open a Mindfulness Retreat in Austria, where Tony has been able to invite over soldiers who are coming to terms with trauma and immerse them in nature.

IMAGE ID FBEMK9 Rear View Of Woman Sitting On Lakeshore Against Cloudy Sky CREDIT EyeEm Alamy Stock Photo
A woman sits on a lakeshore (Picture: EyeEm / Alamy Stock Photo).

Tony spoke to Rachel Cochrane, a BFBS the Forces Station broadcaster, about the power of disconnecting from electrical devices such as smartphones and tablets that can overstimulate us and instead, reconnecting ourselves with nature, saying: "Nature is so powerful, it is unbelievable, to actually ground people. 

"We're bombarded from the moment we wake up. 

"Who's contacted me, look at my social media, what's on the TV? 

"You need to quieten yourself down." 

He encourages people to take a minute to unplug themselves from technology, even if it is just for a short time. He says doing this will help to quieten your mind.

At times, our minds can be filled with so many thoughts that it is difficult to think clearly which can be devastating for our mental health. Clarity and peace of mind can help clear some space for reflection and decisive action. 

Tony recommends breaking out of your routine for a bit. Give your brain time to process the day by, at times, slowing down how you interact with it. He says: "Even if you just do something like, you know what, for two hours I'm going to switch my phone off. 

"This evening when I go home, I am not going to put the TV on ... I'm going to open a book up and I'm going to read. 

"I'm going to listen to some music that's going to quieten myself down." 

Otterburn Training Area in Northumberland Soldiers Officers Royal Regiment of Scotland in 2017 Rain Nature ID 45162946 CREDIT Crown Copyright
Soldiers and Officers walk in the rain during Exercise Celtic Warrior at the Otterburn Training Area in Northumberland in 2017 (Picture: Crown Copyright).

The veteran says one incredibly powerful method of calming down is to immerse yourself in nature – either inside or outside your home. 

Surrounding yourself with the sounds and smells of nature such as cheerful birdsong and the pitter-patter of light rain on a warm summer's day, can help towards making you feel grounded when life is starting to feel overwhelming. 

He said: "And you don't need to go out into a forest or go out into a big mountain area. 

"Just go and to sit in your garden, switch the phone off, get some sun on you … listen to the birds. 

"It really does help you. It does calm you. It does ground you. 

"And the more you do that, it becomes a habit and when it becomes a habit, it becomes part of your life." 

Otterburn Training Area in Northumberland Soldiers Royal Regiment of Scotland in 2017 Rain Nature ID 45162947 CREDIT Crown Copyright
The Otterburn Training Area in Northumberland drenched by rain in 2017 (Picture: Crown Copyright).

Even having plants growing in your home can help. If regularly watered and kept in sunlight, he said, they naturally transform carbon dioxide in the air into oxygen which helps to boost our energy levels. He added: "Plants and flowers want to live. 

"When you see them wilting a little bit, you water them, they come back to life and that's what life is all about. 

"People sometimes have a little bit of a dip in their life for whatever reason. 

"You just need to water that again for it to bloom, to actually blossom." 

In essence, you must learn to water your spiritual garden. Tony says one of the best parts of immersing yourself in nature to improve your mental health is that it is free. 

There is no need to visit a doctor or get a prescription to go into nature. Tony said we are living through a strange time in history where we feel reliant upon technology to make us happy. 

In reality, he says, we already have in abundance what can make us happy – nature. He said: "It's there, it's free, it's waiting for you. It's been there since eternity. 

"It'll still be there when you're gone, but it's there for you to actually use. 

"Nature doesn't hold anything against you at all, doesn't ask anything of you, it just wants you to be with it and allow nature to give you back what has always been there."