Covid and the comfort of nature

Published 13 July 2021

Psychiatrist Sue Stuart-Smith on how the seasons affect us all.

  • From the Spring 2020 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    When the Covid-19 pandemic struck last spring, the planet didn’t stop spinning on its axis but the human world did. Our places of work, education, leisure and worship simultaneously closed their doors and in one fell swoop, everyday life became radically curtailed and confined. During most other kinds of disaster, people can still hold and comfort each other; they can cry together, sing together, eat, drink and dance together; but the coronavirus deprived us of these fundamental sources of joy, consolation and release.

    The spring as it unfolded was exceptionally beautiful and in the face of so much fear and unpredictability, the natural world offered a marker of constancy, giving us an alternative reality of health and vibrancy. The birds, flowers and trees were unperturbed by everything we were going through, and that was deeply calming.

  • David Hockney, No. 227

    David Hockney, No. 227, 22nd April 2020.

    iPad painting. © David Hockney.

  • In Hertfordshire, where I live with my husband Tom, the warm April days seemed to stretch into one another and the sky was endlessly blue. The aeroplane vapour trails that criss-cross high overhead vanished entirely and the nearby motorway fell eerily quiet. The air felt pristine and our views over the surrounding fields and woods became newly vivid and clear, so much so that we christened the effect ‘Tibetan light’.

    Light is the key to spring’s effects, for it is light that breaks through winter’s dormancy and summons the green pulse of life to surge up from the earth. And through light, we too are attuned to the turning of the planet on its axis and its orbit around the sun. The lengthening of the days and increased intensity of light shifts the balance of melatonin and serotonin in the brain. Our mood, our energy, our sense of motivation all typically increase and on good days we literally feel a spring in our step.

  • Our mood, our energy, our sense of motivation all typically increase and on good days we literally feel a spring in our step

    Sue Stuart-Smith

  • But this season of warmth and light has a less well- known dark side, which may not be the paradox that it initially appears to be. Around the world, suicides have been found to peak in spring, with the northern hemisphere seeing a rise in May and the southern hemisphere in November. Why this should be is not entirely clear, but it seems that the disjunction between a bleak inner world and a burgeoning outer world can sometimes compound rather than counteract a sense of despair. Energy, after all, is not in itself a force for health; it is how it is directed that matters. For someone suffering from severe depression, a resurgence of energy in spring may strengthen their resolve to end their life. Hospital admissions for bipolar disorder are also increased at this time of year because spring can be a trigger for the restlessness and euphoria of mania.

  • David Hockney, No. 186

    David Hockney, No. 186, 11th April 2020.

    iPad painting. © David Hockney.

  • For all this, spring remains one of our deepest and most sustaining metaphors. In his paper ‘On Transience’ (1915), Sigmund Freud recognised that mourning is an inevitable part of living through the seasons, but that we can also draw strength from the cycle of life: ‘As regards the beauty of Nature, each time it is destroyed by winter it comes again next year, so that in relation to the length of our lives it can in fact be regarded as eternal.’

    It is the prospect of light that helps us cope with the darkness of winter and the renewal of life that helps us to bear loss. Writing this in January, in the depths of this winter, with the coronavirus still rampant and a second pandemic of anxiety and depression underway, all we can do is long for the coming of spring.

    Sue Stuart-Smith is a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist, and the author of The Well Gardened Mind (William Collins)

  • David Hockney, No. 340

    David Hockney, No. 340, 21st May 2020.

    iPad painting. © David Hockney.

    • David Hockney , No. 147 (detail)

      David Hockney: The Arrival of Spring in Normandy, 2020

      23 May — 26 September 2021

      In the midst of a pandemic, David Hockney RA captured the unfolding of spring on his iPad, creating 116 new and optimistic works in praise of the natural world.

      Hockney is one of the most important British artists of the 20th century – and he remains one of the most inventive.

      This new body of work – 116 works in total – has been ‘painted’ on the iPad and then printed onto paper, with Hockney overseeing all aspects of production.

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