Grief Is Happening, Holiday or Not

Grief Is Happening, Holiday or Not

NOTE: This post was written by Hannah Guzewicz

If you are someone in grief, the holidays can be an interesting time of year. There is so much merriment and joy; anticipation and celebration, and yet there is a natural counterbalance that happens for those who have lost a loved one which comes in the form of support and acknowledgement of your grief that may have been absent before. There are some seemingly universal truths that are experienced in grief but it can also be profoundly misunderstood.  Some simply cannot comprehend that grief is not something one can “get over.”  Some do understand this and still expect grief to follow predictable paths.  Even those who have experienced grief themselves sometimes believe they understand what grief is for another person. If you have lost someone, you have likely counted the days, weeks, months, and years without your loved one, taken time to mark birthdays and death anniversaries, and felt some sort of obligation to keep that person alive in holiday traditions. These feelings and rituals can linger for many people.

Therefore, with any proximity to grief or if you yourself are grieving, you have undoubtedly seen essays, books, and social media dedicated to allowing space for grief during the holidays. There are reminders that you can and should take time for self care and that you do not have to enjoy the holidays. This is all true.

But what if your journey with grief has diverged a bit? My son died 5 and a half years ago when he was only 10 months old. It was unexpected and traumatic.  He was happy and smiling in the morning and gone that afternoon. In the aftermath, I experienced all those countdowns and marking the passing of time but eventually the ceremony of all that started to hurt me more. I had to let go of keeping every single milestone sacred to care for myself. Today, while things are different and my choices aren’t what they would have been without loss, the holidays really are a joyous experience for me. I love the celebrations, music, and lights. I cherish the family time and traditions so often I end up feeling guilty that I’m not extra sad during this time of year.

It’s a hard position to explain to people. Losing a child at any point is excruciating and even many years later, trying to talk about that time doesn’t just bring up sadness for me. There is a physical crushing pain in my chest.  It is hard to breathe and hard to swallow. The loss was life altering. I have deep wells of patience and grace for others that far exceed any I had before and also some fiery anger, intolerance, and fear that surprise me some days. I am a different person. Different not only because of life lived and lessons learned: different because the loss of my son changed my physical body, my emotional mind, and my soul. I will never be over that day. And yet, I can sometimes feel shame and guilt when people (with the kindest intentions) check in on me during the holidays and I am enjoying the season. In grief, certain times of pain are expected and yet I find the smaller less symbolic moments are when I feel most crippled. Like seeing a brother and sister walking home from school together knowing my daughters will never know their older brother. Or witnessing my older daughter teaching and protecting the younger and feeling so angry that she will never know the care of her older sibling.

The good news is that whatever loss you have experienced, there are multitudes of resources that can help you cope with grief in the minute-by-minute journey of finding how to live with your loss. And it is perfectly normal to experience sadness and stress around the holidays with grief. But despite the universality of grief, it is also deeply personal, so if the holidays are not painful for you, don’t let concern or care from others inject guilt into your experience.  Joy, whenever it happens, does not diminish the love you had or the grief you will always carry. Hold onto the moments of joy you have and know that wherever your grief may take you, you are not alone.

 

The Mental Health Benefits of Holidays

The Mental Health Benefits of Holidays

We hear a lot these days about how holidays can be stressful and that many people struggle with their mental health this time of year.  I’ve written in an earlier post about some considerations for how you can support those loves ones with mental health concerns during the holidays.  However, holidays can also be a time to reflect on some other themes that can be truly beneficial to your mental health.  It’s important that we remember that the holidays are not a joyous time for everyone, but let’s also look at some of the benefits of celebrating during the holiday season and the positive things that traditions, time with family, and seasonal giving bring to our personal and cultural mental health.

Here are some important ways that the holidays can give you a little mental health boost if you’re feeling burnt out, moody, or disheartened.

  1. Spending time with family and friends

Spending time with your loved ones is the best part of the holidays. Perhaps you only see some of your friends during that annual holiday party, or maybe your family lives far away and so traveling to see them during the holidays is one of the few ways you can stay in touch.  Keeping connections with people that you care about is an important way that we foster positive relationships with our support network.  Sometimes, you may only see some of your family every few years, or even longer.  This makes the times spent together all the more meaningful and important. Family bonding time is especially important for children, so be sure to call, hug, FaceTime, and spend time with the children in your life, whether that be your nieces and nephews, other close family friends, or your own children. There will be times when you may need to set boundaries with the people that are unhealthy in your life, and make more of an effort to spend quality time with the people that bring positivity into your life. Whether that’s making a trip to see you grandmother or opting to have Friendsgiving with your favorite peer group, the holidays are a great time to focus on the value of the important people in your life.

2. Getting time off from work and/or school

Taking a vacation has proven mental health benefits, whether you do a staycation or travel abroad. Obviously, not everyone gets to take time off at the holidays, so if you do, then recognize that this is a great opportunity renew yourself, even if it is just for a few days.  A new study notes that while previous research has validated the benefits of a 7-day vacation, even shorter vacations (4 nights) can result in marked improvements in stress levels, mental recovery, and well-being. These benefits are still effective up to 45 days later. Most Americans could use more time off work, because stress from overwork makes you sick and burnt out and many workers get limited paid vacation time, if any.  However, this is the time of year when many people are planning to take some vacation days, travel to spend time with family, and recharge a little before the New Year. So if you have the opportunity and are able to take some time off of work, take advantage of and use those vacation days before the year is up. You’ll feel better, and you’ll be more likely to start the New Year off fresh and ready to tackle your goals.

3. Celebrating traditions

For many people, the holidays are a time to practice family or spiritual traditions. There are certainly times traditions need to be changed up, and it’s always a good time to start a new tradition, but many people find comfort in the practice of their time-honored traditions. Traditions reinforce the value of community, heritage, and memories. The  British Medical Journal published research that looked at brain scans and found that the brains of people who celebrate Christmas “light up” in the cerebral areas associated with spirituality, somatic senses, and facial emotion when viewing positive images associated with the holiday. In other words, your brain can actually reflect “Christmas spirit” if you celebrate the holiday.  You may choose to continue on with the practices of religious or spiritual traditions that you’ve grown up with, or you may decide to make your own new traditions. Either way, passing on traditions to the younger members of your family and celebrating together can be a valuable way to enhance family bonds.  All the while you are hopefully making great memories that will bring you joy and a shared sense of history as time goes on.

4. Seasonal giving and charity

The holidays are the time of year when many people make their annual donations to charity and practice a spirit of generosity by giving gifts to their loved ones, or volunteer for organizations that they care about. Some charities are only able to do the work that they do because of the influx of donations they get during the holiday season.  Recently, practices like Giving Tuesday have been developed to encourage people to think about supporting the non-profits that work for causes they care about.  Although charitable giving can be done year round (and I encourage you to support causes that you care about whenever you can and are able to afford it), holiday giving can make you feel good and generate some positive energy in your life.  Studies have shown that there are health benefits associated with charitable giving, including less depression, lower stress, and increased happiness. Volunteering has even been shown to increase longevity and results in older adults being less likely to die within the next 5 years when they volunteer. Charitable giving may even help you release more mood boosting brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, resulting in a “helper’s high”.  When you support programs that you care about, you will undoubtedly feel more gratitude for what you have and shift your focus onto what you are able to do for others.  This builds on your own strengths and fosters a sense of contentment and gratitude that is good for your mental health. By all means, give and volunteer for the good of the organizations and causes that you care about, but there’s nothing wrong with recognizing the benefits it brings to you too!

5. Reflection on achievements and goals

At the end of the year, you might find yourself reflecting on how the year went, whether you accomplished your goals, and what goals you have for the next year.  This is a great time to take stock of your achievements and give yourself some credit for all the work that you’ve done.  If you find yourself struggling to see your own accomplishments, you can still reframe any hardships that you’ve experienced and recognize the strength and resiliency that was required for you to overcome some of the obstacles you’ve faced.  Then, set new goals for yourself, and remember that starting over or continuing to work on something you haven’t achieved yet is fine too. Try not to get mired in what didn’t go your way this year, and instead focus on everything you’ve learned and what you’ve accomplished.

 

As you can see, there are many ways the holidays can be good for you, in spite of the stress that holidays can bring.  Sometimes it can be hard to deal with the overwhelming pressure to create a picture perfect holiday for yourself or your family, and even lead to feeling inadequate when you scan through your social media feeds.  However, you’ll have a better chance of getting through the holidays with a little more cheer and a little less stress if you focus on what is most important to you, and let go of the stuff that doesn’t serve you well this time of year.  That might mean focusing more on experiences with the people you love, and less on trying to find the perfect gift for everyone on your list.

The #1 Way to Manage a Panic Attack

The #1 Way to Manage a Panic Attack

This post is going to outline the best strategy I have for my clients to manage an acute panic attack when they do not have a prescription medication that they use to manage their symptoms, or are waiting for their medication to kick in.

For people who experience regular panic attacks, medication is often a necessity, but as I’ve discussed in other posts about panic and anxiety, you will likely need several strategies to manage your symptoms. For others that have only occasional episodes of panic or anxiety attacks, you may not need a regular medication, but you may want to have a PRN medication that you can take as needed. Others will find that they can employ non-medical strategies to combat their symptoms and they can manage their symptoms without a prescription.

Panic attacks are a distressful and uncomfortable set of symptoms that can range from mild to severe and which often require intervention of some sort. Individuals may experience a panic attack in many different ways, but during an acute panic attack, you may experience:

  • Tightness in your chest
  • Difficulty breathing
  • A sense of dread or overwhelming stress
  • Increased heart rate
  • Uncontrollable tearfulness
  • Trembling
  • Sweating
  • Feelings of choking
  • Nausea or stomach pain
  • Dizziness
  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear of dying

Those who have experienced panic attacks know that they can be very upsetting and when they happen you need to take action or symptoms may worsen.  The strategy I’m outlining here uses 3 coping methods in combination to combat an acute panic attack when you feel one coming on.  I’ve talked about several ways to cope with panic and anxiety in this post, where you can read more about other strategies to use.

What to Do

The most effective way I know of to manage an acute panic attack aside from medication is a combination of:

  1. Deep-breathing

Breathe deeply in through your nose and out through your mouth. When you inhale as deeply as possible, pause for a few seconds before releasing your breath out again. Continue with these breathing exercise as long as necessary and try to focus only on your breath and release other thoughts and fears you may be having in the moment.

  1. Walking

While you are doing this breathing exercise, get up and walk at a comfortable pace. Walking helps you to get rid of the excess energy that comes along with a panic attack and distracts you so you don’t feel like jumping out of your own skin.

  1. Essential Oils

The oils here are the extra boost that can provide that additional relief you need when you’re experiencing a panic attack. There are 3-4 oils that you can use that have been demonstrated to be effective in managing anxiety, and which can be used safely during a panic attack. The best oils to use are LavenderFrankincenseBergamot and Black Spruce .

To use this method:

  1. Rub a few drops of Lavender Oil onto your chest or décolletage area
  2. Then take a few drops of Frankincense Oil and rub it onto the back or nape of your neck and across your shoulders/traps
  3. Rub a few drops of Black Spruce Oil or Bergamot Oil onto both wrists or inner forearm area
  4. Begin walking at a comfortable pace, preferably outdoors if possible, and taking deep breaths.
  5. Bring your wrists up to your face as you walk and inhale deeply
  6. Take at least 10 deep breaths with your forearms up near your nose and continue to walk
  7. You can continue with this process until you feel calmer and your symptoms start to recede

As always, if you have a medication that you take for panic attacks, you can and should use your medication as prescribed to combat your symptoms. However, this method can be used to help relieve some of your symptoms while your medication starts to kick in.  If you don’t have medication for panic attacks and need another way to help you when you begin to feel panic coming on, this is the #1 method that I teach and recommend to my clients who have anxiety and panic attacks. I have used oils for years myself, and I have recommended lavender oil in particular to all of my clients with anxiety problems for quite some time now.  This particular method I learned partially from consulting with a friend of mine who is a wellness advocate for doTerra. I personally use doTerra oils whenever I can because of the quality, environmental, and corporate social responsibility policies. However, doTerra doesn’t offer a Black Spruce oil so I’ve purchased that one through different brands as needed.

Why Does This Work?

Plant oils and other preparations such as herbal supplements have been studied for their medicinal properties, and some have been proven to be clinically effective with certain symptoms. Lavender oil has been demonstrated as an effective intervention through research to reduce anxiety. Black spruce and Frankincense both have grounding properties that help with that overwhelming feeling that comes along with a panic attack. Lavender has a sweet, calming scent that makes you feel relaxed and calmer, and Bergamot has a citrus scent that is uplifting and refreshing.

Black spruce smells somewhat like a Christmas tree and has a property called bornyl acetate that can have a relaxing effect on the musculoskeletal system, which could be why it is so effective for anxiety as well.

Frankincense has been used medicinally and ritually for thousands of years, and has anti-cancer, anti-inflammation, and anti-microbial properties.  It has a sweet and spicy scent that can be comforting and calming. Frankincense stimulates the limbic region of the brain, which may help regulate stress. Most of the research on frankincense has focused on its healing properties for cancer, skin conditions, and arthritic conditions.  However, more research is being done to study its effects on emotional health as well.

Your reaction to essential oils is individualized as well, and thus it is a good idea to make sure you try out the scents by inhaling them from the bottle first before you apply them topically on your skin.  These oils are all safe to use topically, but if you have very sensitive skin you can use one to two drops in a carrier oil to reduce any skin reaction. I have had clients who have not enjoyed the scent of Black Spruce or Frankincense, and so for those clients I’ve recommended sticking with Lavender and Bergamot, because those oils are pretty universally enjoyed. However, I think that the grounding properties in Black Spruce and Frankincense are really powerful because of the heightened state of arousal that occurs during a panic attack. Make sure that if you use this method that you are using essential oils and not fragrance oils. Fragrance oils are synthetic compounds made in a lab, whereas essential oils are distilled from real plants and contain the properties of those plants, making them a natural and concentrated element of that plant. Fragrance oils will not do anything for you and will likely result in a headache if you try to substitute with them.

Panic attacks are very real and require real solutions.  This method is the best way that I’ve found to help my clients who suffer from panic attacks and need a concrete method to combat those symptoms when they occur. While everyone may have a different experience, most of my clients with anxiety are willing to try new methods to help combat their symptoms if they haven’t found success with other methods.  I’m most interested in making sure my clients have all the tools possible to manage their symptoms, so this is one way that I can encourage people to try something new that might just help them find some relief when needed.  As always, if you have a panic disorder or other mental health condition, please seek support from your mental health providers or primary care doctor to consult with about ways to manage your mental health symptoms. As a licensed clinician, I can provide advice and suggestions, but this is not a substitute for consulting with your own providers. That being said, I do hope that you will try this method and see if it works for you if you are suffering with panic attacks or anxiety.

 

5 Ways to Support Mental Health this Holiday

5 Ways to Support Mental Health this Holiday

Many people struggle during the holidays for a lot of different reasons.  The holiday season may coincide with anniversary of the loss of a loved one, or may be a reminder of the estrangement or difficulty of family relationships. Despite the fact that these conditions are true for many people, suicides rates actually decrease during the holidays.  The CDC reports that suicide rates are lowest in December, contradicting much of the information published about depression during the holidays.

However, despite the fact that suicide rates may not be spiking during this time of year, it remains a fact that you or someone you know may be struggling emotionally during the holidays. How can we all be more supportive and make sure that our hearts and homes are open to those we care about this season? Just as importantly, how can we make sure that we remain connected and caring throughout the new year as well? Here are some things to keep in mind as you think about mental health awareness during the holiday season:

  1. Reach out

If you notice that someone you care about has withdrawn or if you know a person that struggles with their mental health, this is a great time to reach out to them and let them know that you’re available.  Ask if they have plans over the next couple months and let them know when you know you’ll be available.  Lots of people have events, parties, and trips scheduled this time of year, but letting those you care about know when you’ll be around will make it more likely they will reach out to you as well during those times.  It can be hard for people who struggle with their mental health to reach out for help, and they may be especially disinclined to do so during the holidays because they may feel that they are intruding on others during their holiday plans. For those that do not have a lot of plans, it may feel like an isolating time. One way to be supportive is to think about all of your friends, family, and neighbors, and ask yourself about who could use some company this holiday.

  1. Ask

As mentioned above, it is often hard for people with depression, grief, or other mental health struggles to ask for help when they feel isolated or sad. When you reach out to others, ask how they are doing and if they are getting their needs met.  If you know that they have been grieving or may be feeling upset due to an anniversary, invite them to talk about it if they want to.

  1. Respect Needs

While most people will appreciate your actions when you reach out to offer support, some people may need to have some personal time or withdraw from some of the holiday festivities.  This is not necessarily a bad thing. Isolation and withdrawal may be necessary self-care strategies for people who are struggling. These strategies only become unhealthy when people are thinking about self-harm or who want connection with others but are unable to have that connection for any reason. If someone tells you that they feel like they need some alone time, respect their decision but just reiterate that you are there if and when they need support or company.  Let them know that they do not have to talk about what they are feeling if they don’t want to, but that you can always just hang out to have some good times together as well.

  1. Re-engage

When people want some space, you can give them some time to have privacy, but this doesn’t mean you need to disappear forever.  You can reach back out after a couple weeks or after they have verbalized that they are ready for company or contact again. Just re-engaging with them may allow them to start moving past their seasonal slump. Again, this is a time when people who are struggling with their mental health over the holidays may be ready to be around others or enjoy company again, but they may have a hard time reaching out and asking for help if they have already asked for space.  Just remember that people’s needs change, and being open and adaptable is the best way to be supportive.

  1. Be Personal

Sometimes it can be hard to know what the right thing to say is to those who whom you know are struggling with depression, grief, anxiety, or other emotional struggles. The best way to approach this is to just be sincere and to be personal.  You don’t have to be vague or general when you talk about mental health.  You can ask about how they are handling the anniversary of their loved one’s death, or if they want to talk about the feelings that they experience during the holidays. You can also offer some of your own personal thoughts and about how you relate to or understand their feelings. That can be immensely helpful for people who may not know that others around them have similar feelings or struggles.

 

The most important thing to remember is that while the holidays are filled with joy and gratitude for many people, there are also those for whom the holidays can be challenging. Although more people are aware now of this problem, we sometimes don’t always know what to do to support someone whom we know might be struggling. Remember that you don’t have to have the solutions to all the problems to be helpful.  Just knowing that people care is sometimes the only thing that can make things better.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, where you can get crisis intervention, free confidential support, and resources for you and your loved ones.

How a Gratitude Practice Can Boost Your Mood

How a Gratitude Practice Can Boost Your Mood

It’s Thanksgiving, so it’s naturally a time of year when we think about gratitude and being thankful for what we have.  We love to make an extra effort this time of year to give thanks for what we have, but many of us don’t carry that practice of gratitude throughout the year.  This year, take some time to think about how an intentional gratitude practice can benefit your mood throughout the year.  This is the perfect time to kick off an intentional gratitude practice to boost your mood throughout the holidays and into the new year as well.

Some people struggle with negative thought cycles that keeps their mind occupied with the things they wish they had, or the things they wish they didn’t have, or the problems they may be facing that seem overwhelming.  We all struggle with these negative thoughts at times, but when negative thoughts take up the majority of  your mental energy each day, it can lead to depression, anxiety, fatigue, and hopelessness.

What Are the Benefits of a Gratitude Practice?

Gratitude is an appreciation of what is valuable to you. Gratitude also benefits your mental health in very tangible ways, and research supports the benefits of this practice.  Gratitude reduces negative thoughts, increases life satisfaction, and boosts self-esteem. Practicing intentional gratitude can also reduce negative rumination, improve overall well-being, and is a form of self-care.

Incorporating a gratitude practice has been shown to benefit people who have PTSD, those will serious health conditions, and in general has resulted in positive impacts for participants across the past two decades of research.  Researchers have shown that an intentional gratitude practice actually trains your brain to be more altruistic, making people more likely to give to charitable causes. This research suggests that practicing gratitude can have an actual impact on our brain’s inner circuitry.  As with all habits, consistency can wire your brain for change, bad or good.  There is even some preliminary research that suggests that gratitude journaling could reduce inflammation in the body, which is a common source of many negative health conditions.

How To Start A Gratitude Practice

There are many ways that you can start to implement intentional gratitude into your daily life. Everyone can benefit from starting an intentional gratitude practice, but if you struggle with negative thoughts cycles, depression, anger, past trauma, or low frustration tolerance, you especially may want to start a gratitude practice to combat some of the mental impacts of these problems. Here are some options for how to do this:

  1. Start a gratitude journal

You can simply keep a daily list where you jot down one thing that you a grateful for every day, or you can journal a little more thoroughly and really process why you feel appreciative of the people, places, and things in your life. You can challenge yourself to do this daily for a certain period of time, such as 30 or 100 days, and then try to keep it going as a daily reminder to live in gratitude. You can include anything in the world that you feel grateful for: friends, family, a job, your pets, lessons learned, a kind word you received, your home, your neighbors, food to eat, opportunities to grow, et cetera.  When you start to recognize how much you have to be grateful for, you will begin to live with that appreciation in your heart.

  1. Do a mental affirmation each morning or each evening before bed

Start each day with a mental affirmation like “I’m grateful to be alive today and I’m committing to living today with that gratitude in my heart”, or you could end your day with a similar affirmation, such as “I’m grateful that I was able to make a difference today in my (job, family, community, et cetera)”.

  1. Think of specific traits of the people you care about that you appreciate, and then tell those people how grateful you are for the positive things they bring to your life

Note the very specific things that you appreciate about the people in your life and what those qualities bring to your life.  This could be things such as “My best friend is super fun to hang around and she always cheers me up”, or “My partner is really patient, even when I’m feeling overwhelmed and frustrated”, or “My children are so funny and interesting, even when they challenge me”.

  1. Make a list of all the things you DON’T want that you DON’T have

This list could go on forever, really, but sometimes it’s helpful to think about all the things that you do not have to live with that others unfortunately do.  There is nothing wrong with feeling gratitude that you have escaped some hardships that others have had to endure. These could be things such as “I do not live in a war zone, I do not have a terminal illness, my life is not made harder due to a disability”.  Of course some people do have to live with these circumstances, and so if you are lucky enough to be one of those that do not, then gratitude is in order for the ways in which you benefit from not having to struggle with those issues.

 

Cultivating gratitude is something that can improve your overall quality of life and boost your mood when you feel stuck in a cycle of negativity.  Gratitude is not about wearing rose-colored glasses and pretending you don’t have any problems.  Nor does it mean that you don’t still need to do the work to change the things about yourself or your life that you find unsatisfying.  Gratitude is about recognizing everything that you DO have.  It is about looking at your life from a strengths perspective, and noticing everything that you have going in your favor instead of worrying about everything that you have working against you.

If you want to start a gratitude practice and start living a more mindful life, you can start with a small challenge to incorporate gratitude into your daily routine.  I’ll send you a free 30-day Mindfulness Journal that includes space to journal your gratitude daily, along with daily inspiration, places to track your habits, and journal about your progress. Get started today to incorporate the benefits of gratitude in your life!

The Therapeutic Benefits of Nature

The Therapeutic Benefits of Nature

Many people report that they feel better in a variety of ways when they spend time in nature.  Hiking, walking, going to the beach, gardening, outdoor sports, and camping all have tangible benefits to your mental health. Nature helps us disconnect from the stressors of our everyday lives, reminds us of our connection to the earth and the cycles of life, and facilitates spiritual connections by engaging our senses and quieting our minds.

Some people intuitively know that they need that time in nature or outside in the fresh air in order to keep mentally well. But sometimes we forget that nature is a powerful healer, and if you did not grow up in an environment in which exposure to nature was routinely encouraged, you might not have considered how much of an impact that exposure can have.

In the field of mental health, therapists and doctors are used to making clinical recommendations such as medications, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and support groups to help clients on the path to mental wellness. In outpatient settings, there is attention given to building coping skills such as meditation and exercise, but we don’t always do a good job of encouraging our clients to spend time in nature as a valid practice to improve mental health.  This is unfortunate, because nature provides so much that can boost mental health and it does so for free in most cases.

How Does Nature Benefit Your Mental Health?

Research supports the positive benefits of nature exposure in a variety of ways. One study found that neighborhoods that had more green space such as forests and parks had lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress.  This was found to confer benefits to communities in many ways, including encouraging physical activity, increasing social interaction, and protecting against air and noise pollution. Another study found that patients who were in a nature-based horticultural program saw more improvements in their levels of depression, anxiety and stress, and that those benefits lasted longer once they completed treatment.

Here are some of the benefits that exposure to nature provides:

  • Sunlight

Sunlight provides us with Vitamin D, an important vitamin that helps us stay well. Vitamin D has deficiency has been associated with poor cognitive function, depression, and anxiety. We know that exposure to sunlight boosts your mood, because of research done on the phenomenon of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  SAD occurs in areas that do not get exposure to sunlight for many months out of the year due to their proximity to earth’s poles.   People in these areas often experience depression during those months because of the lack of exposure to sun. The treatment for this disorder actually involves using light boxes to transmit the necessary benefits of light to people suffering from SAD. This study found that workers who had exposure to natural elements and sunlight in the workplace reported less depression and anxiety and more workplace satisfaction.  In fact, exposure to direct sunlight was the dominant predictor for anxiety traits; so if you have anxiety getting exposure to sunlight could be key in managing your symptoms.

  • Decreases Stress

Mental stress is a primary factor in anxiety and depressive conditions. The more stress people are under, the more likely they are to experience anxiety, depression, burnout, cognitive decline, and physical manifestations of their mental health problems. Research continues to build support for nature’s ability to decrease stress, improve mental clarity, and reduce symptoms associated with mental health problems. One way to use this information to your benefit is to try and fit in a walk outdoors before, during or after your work day whenever possible. Even small amounts of outdoor activity can build up to give you improvements in your quality of life that will boost your mental health.

  • Improves Attention

Everyone knows that when children can’t pay attention to a task, you send them outside to play for awhile.  We live in a time where we are increasingly disconnected with nature. Surveys have shown that Americans on average spend 90% of their time indoors. Screen time and consumption of media has increased exponentially, and this has had an impact on our collective mental and physical health. However, a review of the research reveals that exposure to nature has the ability to actually restore our attention. Excess concentration can lead to “attention-fatigue”, which most of us have probably experienced, like when you stare at a page and read the same paragraph over and over again without retaining the information. Getting out into nature can reset our attention span by provoking fascination, which allows us to recover from mental fatigue.

  • Improves Gut Health

Getting dirty has tangible mental health benefits too. Getting dirt under your nails and inadvertently into your mouth can increase the good probiotics in your gut. A healthy gut has been linked to good mental health because your gut is connected to your brain through your central nervous, immune, and endocrine systems. Traditional thinking maintained that psychological conditions did not have a biological origin, but the latest research is finding that our mental health is actually very much connected to our bodies and specifically our gut. The bottom line is that exposure to nature, specifically getting dirty, can improve your gut health which has demonstrable benefits to your mental health. For more on this, read my post on Gardening for Mental Health.

  • Fosters Spiritual Wellbeing

Nature has long been a place where people go to restore their spirit and reflect on their connection to the earth and the universe we inhabit.  Observing natural wonders such as the beauty of the plants, the unique qualities of wildlife, or the power of water and wind forces us to realize how small we really are and how short our time here on earth is. These kinds of reflections often lead to feelings of gratitude and serenity.  You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the beauty of nature, but many religious writings have revered nature throughout history. Traditional Native-American spirituality wholly incorporates reverence for nature into religious practices. Spirituality is highly individualized, but many people rely on their spirituality to help them cope with mental illness.  Thus, the spiritual restoration that time spent in nature seems to provide is an important benefit conferred upon those who seek spiritual refuge in natural spaces.

How Can I Boost My Mental Health through Nature?

It’s not hard to understand why being cooped up indoors for most of the day with little exposure to natural light and fresh air can leave you feeling sapped for energy, mildly anxious and a little depressed.  Given all the benefits of nature to our physical and mental wellbeing, everyone should be making an effort to make time spent in nature a priority. Particularly if you are struggling with depression, anxiety, or other mental health problems, spending more time in nature can help you gain improvements in your symptoms and keep you more balanced overall.

To put this into practice, first take an assessment of your resources. If you live in a rural area, you probably already know where to go.  Whether you can hike local trails, wander in the nearby forest, or spend time near the closest lake or ocean, plan to get outside more and spend time really getting to know the natural spaces near where you live.  You can journal outdoors, take pictures of natural wonders, or just use the time to process your thoughts and feelings and get some clarity about your goals and intentions.  This may be more challenging if you live in an urban area, but there’s still plenty of options. If you live near a park, plan to take walks there.  If you have few natural spaces around you, bring nature to you. Buy some houseplants and start doing some container gardening. If you have a porch or a deck, make that a little outdoor sanctuary with plants, bird-feeders, or a mini-fountain for a water feature. Even just taking a walk around the block can give you a boost. You’ll still get exposure to sunlight, and you can take time out to observe any bird or other wildlife that is hanging around. Most importantly, get creative and look for the opportunities that you have to foster your own relationship with nature and support your own mental wellness.