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 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.
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.
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.
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.
There is a tendency that some people have sometimes to apologize for things that do not require an apology, or to apologize for things that were not their fault. This is a habit that comes from a place of wanting to be considerate of other people, which is a good trait and a good quality to have. However, when we over-apologize, it can have the effect making you feel responsible for things that you shouldn’t be responsible for, and this pattern can contribute to a lack of confidence in how you feel and how you come across to other people.
Some people are so accustomed to apologizing for everything that happens, that they feel awkward when they make the effort to NOT apologize when it’s not needed. This can be a people-pleasing tendency that has become an ingrained habit. Other times it may be a response to anxiety or fear of judgement, but it can manifest itself in ways that merely serve to contribute to overall anxiety. The tendency to apologize for things when you have done nothing wrong may make you feel like you are in a constant state of needing to attend to other people’s feelings and comfort, leaving you feeling as though your own feelings and comfort do not matter.
What’s the Problem with Apologizing Too Much?
There is research that suggests that women tend to apologize more not because they are too sensitive or because men have more ego strength, but because women tend to perceive more wrongdoing in their own actions, whereas men tend to perceive smaller offenses as not worthy of requiring an apology. In other words, women tend to judge their own behaviors more harshly, leading them to find more scenarios in which they feel an apology is merited. Over-apologizing is not a trait only women experience, but it may be more likely to be true if you are a woman, particularly one who has been taught to attend to other people’s feelings more than your own.
Here are some scenarios in which you may have become accustomed to apologizing, but that do not actually require an apology:
- Expressing remorse for something that was out of your control
- Apologizing for being in the way when someone else bumps into you
- Apologizing for being offended at something someone else has done to you
- Apologizing for having feelings or for crying when you are upset
- Apologizing when someone else interrupts you
- Apologizing for making a simple request such as asking the time or a small favor
- Apologizing for apologizing
All of these situations are scenarios in which either someone else should actually give an apology, or in which there is no need for an apology at all because there has been no offense committed.
For example, have you ever been confiding in a friend about a painful experience, and then when you started to cry, you apologized to your friend for crying? This is an unfortunately common reaction that many people have when they start to cry, and the implication is that you have done something wrong by becoming emotional when talking about a painful experience. However, in this situation your friend is probably not offended at all that you started to cry, and in fact you have done nothing wrong; you are reacting in a perfectly appropriate way to an expression of your emotions. Why is an apology required? For disturbing the peace? No, you do not need to apologize in this situation.
When you begin to realize that you do not have to apologize for reacting to situations in perfectly normal ways, you will start to feel more confident in yourself. However, if you start to practice asking yourself whether an apology is needed before you issue one, you might find that you feel strange or uncomfortable when you stop yourself from apologizing.
Isn’t This Just Being Polite?
No, apologizing when it is not needed is not a form of being polite. Some people have this tendency because they have been taught or socialized to believe that they should always make sure other people are comfortable, even when they are personally uncomfortable. This is true in those cases when someone bumps into you awkwardly, but then you apologize for being in the way. Sure, you’re trying to just be polite and diffuse the awkwardness of the situation.
However, this is almost an invitation for people to walk all over you. Maybe this will not manifest immediately in the present moment, but over time, this tendency to always present yourself as the one who’s in the way can begin to undermine your own confidence in yourself and shows others that you are not going to stand up for yourself when someone has wronged you. This is most problematic in the way that this habit contributes to your overall demeanor around others. It doesn’t mean someone is going to start bullying you immediately, but over time it contributes to the perception that you will not fault others when they take advantage of or otherwise harm you. You can be polite and kind to others without apologizing for other people’s offenses.
The more assertive way to handle it when someone else bumps into you is to wait for them to apologize to you, which is what would be truly polite, and then accepting the apology with grace by saying simply “Thanks, but I’m okay”, or “You’re excused”. The thanks is for the apology, the reference to being okay or excusing the other person is a verbal forgiveness for the offense of bumping into you. If someone does not apologize for bumping into you, you can either choose to ignore it, or say “You’re excused”. This way the implication is clear that you are not the one who has done something wrong, but you are gracefully excusing the error regardless of the offender’s reaction.
Practicing this new habit in more inconsequential situations such as an accidental bump in a social setting will help you gain confidence for when you need to stand up for yourself in more consequential situations. When you really need to speak up for yourself because of unfair treatment in the workplace, or when a friend has said something hurtful to you, you will be better equipped to handle the scenario confidently because you have been practicing accepting responsibility only for the things you are actually responsible for, and not letting others off the hook for their own offenses by taking unnecessary responsibility.
When Is an Apology Really Required?
Genuine remorse is a different experience altogether. When you have done something for which you are truly remorseful, you should apologize. A genuine apology is an art in itself, and giving a sincere apology is an important part of mending relationships and living up to your own values. A genuine apology should first be sincere, it should explain why what you did was wrong, it should include acceptance of responsibility, and it should include an offer to make amends if possible.
You might need to apologize for snapping at your friend when you were actually upset about something happening at work, or for being late to an appointment where someone was waiting on you, or for not following through with a commitment you made to help with a project. Being able to verbalize a sincere apology is an important skill to have, and can go a long way towards reducing hostility in a relationship or for preserving your reputation.
However, when you apologize for things that do not require an apology, it can undermine your confidence and leave you feeling powerless when others take advantage of you. If this feels like a familiar situation to you, start by beginning to notice all the times you apologize, and begin asking yourself whether that was necessary. Then start by trying to reverse this habit in those smaller, inconsequential scenarios, so that you can begin to build confidence in your ability to assess when an apology is really needed. Just taking these small steps can go a long way in boosting your overall confidence and helping you to become a more assertive person.
Human beings vary in their degree of sensitivity, by which I mean that there are some people who are highly sensitive and who feel emotions very intensely, whereas there are others who display little sensitivity towards others and who also do not seem to be as affected by their environment or the people around them. Empaths are people who are empathetic and sympathetic towards others, and also experience the world as a highly sensitive person.
From Sociopaths to Empaths
There appears to be about 3-5 percent of the human population that fall under the category of sociopathic, which does not mean that they are all murderers, but does mean that they operate their lives in a way by which their primary concern is always about themselves, and they do not have the ability to see things from the perspective of others. They may feel very little true guilt or shame about doing harmful things to others. Another 1 percent is considered psychopathic, with higher percentages of both sociopaths and psychopaths found among criminal populations.
There is another end of the spectrum though, who are rather the opposite of the sociopaths, psychopaths, and narcissists, which is those who are highly sensitive individuals, sometimes referred to as Empaths. Interestingly, highly sensitive people comprise about 20% of the population. Empaths are a kind of highly sensitive person that extends their ability to experience the feelings deeply of others as well as themselves. Empaths are people who identify with and feel intense empathy towards others. This does not mean that they are inherently fragile or overly-emotional. It means that they feel things deeply, think about things deeply, and take on the emotions and experiences of others as their own.
Who Are the Empaths?
Being highly sensitive is a temperament trait, not a disorder or a problem that needs to be solved. In fact, it is a trait that likely has some benefit as a survival trait, because high sensitivity exists in over 100 different species of animals as well. For example, certain dogs may be more sensitive and empathetic, which makes them amazing companion animals and also great therapy dogs. These animals, as well as highly sensitive people, are very responsive to small changes in their environment.
Empaths often find themselves worrying not only about their own problems and experiences, but the problems and experiences of their friends and families, people they may not even know, and the problems of the world at large. While many people do think and care about these things, empaths tend to have a more intense personal emotional response to these things, and may find themselves exhausted at caring so much about everything. Both men and women can be empaths, and highly sensitive individuals exist in similar rates in both men and women.
Empaths typically have the following characteristics as part of their general personality and constitution:
- Highly emotionally responsive, ability to understand and respond to the emotions of others
- Easily empathize with animals
- May cry easily, even at seemingly innocuous moments, commercials or movies
- Tend to be creative and curious, with a desire to learn about and understand the world
- Susceptible to over-stimulation, such as crowds, loud noises, or over-work
- May be inclined towards caring professions, such as nursing, mental health, or teaching
- May burn-out easily and need reclusive time to recover
- Tend to observe quietly and take things in
- Mentally process information deeply and thoroughly
Empaths may often feel different than others, feel misunderstood, or have a hard time understanding why others in the world care so little compared to them. This can lead to a tendency towards introversion, although not all empaths or highly sensitive people are introverted. Many empaths have been told throughout their lives that their way of perceiving the world is wrong, or that they need to “get over” their feelings. However, recognizing that you are a highly sensitive person or an Empath may help you to understand more about what your unique needs are by learning to value the traits that you have and use them as a strength.
What do Empaths Need?
Empaths tend to work well independently, and also work well in settings that are one-on-one with another person. Workplace environments with a lot of people, or that are very noisy and simulating may leave empaths feeling drained rather than energized. Socializing may lead to similar experiences. Knowing that certain environments will feel over-whelming and lead to feeling unwell may help empaths make decisions about career paths and socialization choices that will lead to more fulfilling experiences.
Empaths also may need to have down-time in between experiences that are overwhelming. For example, after going to a party one evening, an empath may need to make sure they schedule time for solitude in order to recover and regain energy. They may similarly need to schedule down-time after situations that require a lot of emotional energy, such as caregiving for others, volunteering for charity work, or even engaging with friends to support them.
Knowing if you are an empath may help you understand how to express your needs more assertively. Empaths may often have difficulty asking for help or even saying “No” when others request help from them. Their tendency is to try to solve problems for others, but this may sometimes result in the empathic person neglecting their own needs. Learning to say no to some obligations or requests for help, and learning to schedule time for yourself in order to recover your sense of energy can have a positive effect on your overall mood and improve your ability to interact with the world.
As an Empath, recognize that your highly sensitive qualities are a strength, both to yourself and your community. Sometimes, you may wish that you could not care as much because of how deeply everything affects you. However, the world needs highly sensitive people who are attuned to others and who care about how others think and feel. Empaths have likely long been the healers and the nurturers in human communities, and have been valuable to the societies they live in. However, empaths can also learn to care as much about themselves as they do others, which they certainly deserve due to the value they bring to other’s lives.
Anxiety is common mental health condition that affects millions of people every day. While many people use anti-anxiety medications to help manage their symptoms, I often hear from people who want to learn more about strategies to cope with anxiety and panic attacks without using medication.
My general recommendation for coping with anxiety is to think of yourself as having a toolbox. You can use many different tools to cope with your symptoms, and medication may be one of those tools. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, medication may have place in your life as you learn how to manage your symptoms in the best way for you as an individual.
However, even if you take a medication for anxiety or panic attacks, you probably still want some other strategies to help you manage your symptoms so that you feel more confident that you can effectively cope when you begin to feel overwhelmed.
Here are 10 non-medical tools and strategies that you can utilize to help build your coping skills around managing your anxiety and panic attacks:
- Deep-breathing Practices
- Deep-breathing is a necessary strategy if you struggle with panic and anxiety. Deep-breathing techniques increase the oxygen flow to your brain and body, and it is the Number 1 way to combat acute panic and anxiety. Practice inhaling deeply through your nose, holding your breath for 5 seconds, and then exhaling through your mouth. Do this at least 10 times to produce a calming effect in your body and mind. Try closing your eyes while you are doing it as well, to increase the focus of your senses on your breathing.
- Another deep-breathing method to try involves closing your right nostril with your thumb while you breathe deeply in through the left nostril. Hold your breath for 5 seconds, then close the left nostril with your forefinger while you release your thumb on the right nostril, and then exhale through the right nostril. You are directing the flow of air throughout your nasal passage in a conscious way. Repeat this 10 times, alternating the open and closed nostril.
- Guided Meditation
- I love using guided meditation apps for sleep, but they are great for panic and anxiety as well. Using an app with your headphones can help you focus on your breath, and listening to a calming voice talk to you in a soothing way will bring your attention back to the present moment. Just go to wherever you usually get your apps from (I just use the app store on my phone) and search for “guided meditation” and look through the options. Many apps have free versions that give you a few tracks, while others cost a few dollars and come with expanded options.
- Yoga is an excellent technique to incorporate into your lifestyle to reduce stress and anxiety. The practice focuses on attention to your breathing as you move through poses that will stretch your muscles, increase your flexibility, and enhance your mind-body connection. Research has shown yoga to be an effective strategy for reducing anxiety and depression.
- Incorporate a hatha-style (gentle) yoga practice into your routine twice a week for 90 minutes for the best results. If that kind of schedule doesn’t work for you, try shorter practices more frequently, such as 15 minutes twice a day. For more tips on building a yoga practice for mental health, check out my post on How to use Yoga for Depression.
- Aromatherapy works by using essential oils to stimulate your olfactory system, which connects scents to your nose and your brain. I have recommended them to my clients frequently as an extra resource to cope with panic and anxiety. You can use essential oils by applying them topically to the skin, in conjunction with a massage, in a diffuser for your entire room, or you can just inhale directly from the bottle.
- The best oils in my experience to use for panic and anxiety are Lavender Oil, Frankincense , and Black Spruce. If you’ve never tried using oils before, you can start by rubbing a drop or two of oil on your wrists, and then bringing your wrists to your nose and inhaling deeply. Just be careful, as some oils that are very strong need to be blended with a carrier oil. The 3 oils mentioned here are fine to use topically on your skin, but if you have very sensitive skin, just mix a drop of oil with a teaspoon of carrier oil like coconut oil or grapeseed oil before applying to your skin.
- Make sure that you use essential oils, and not fragrance oils. Essential oils are derived from plants, whereas fragrance oils are synthetic and laboratory made. Fragrance oils will not have the same effects as essential oils and are not a replacement.
- I have tried different brands of essential oils, but I do prefer to use doTERRA when possible for 3 reasons: product quality, corporate social responsibility, and environmental responsibility. I’ve researched the company and find them to be reputable in those areas, which is important to me.
- Another method of aromatherapy is to diffuse the oil into the air around you. You can use a combination of lavender and frankincense by just adding a few drops of each to a diffuser with water, and then allow the scent to fill the room. Diffusing is probably best as a more preventative method. If you find yourself having acute anxiety, you most likely will find it more effective to apply the oils topically and inhale. Diffusing is great though, for creating on overall calming and relaxing atmosphere in your personal space.
- You can also use oils in your bathtub by just dropping 5 drops in the water. Using oils along with Epson salts will provide a relaxing bath experience. Again, lavender and frankincense are great options here. If you don’t use a bathtub, try dropping a few drops of oil in the bottom of your shower towards the opposite end of where the drain is where not as much water will wash it away so quickly. It will still diffuse a little into the steam of your shower.
- Journaling can be therapeutic as both a preventative strategy and acute anxiety. Any journal or notebook will do, so try doing a quick entry at night before you go to bed to help you get all your stressors off your mind before going to sleep. Or, you can keep a small journal with you throughout the day and start writing when you begin to feel overwhelmed. Many people find writing to be very helpful as a coping skill, so it’s worth trying. You can also try writing down your stressors and fears and then burning them in a fire-pit or outside on a driveway as a symbolic way to rid yourself of those feelings.
- Mindfulness Practices
- Mindfulness is another practice that has support from research demonstrating its effectiveness as a measure to improve psychological wellbeing. Mindfulness practices will not stop a panic attack that is already in progress, but it is a good strategy to promote mental health and resilience by consciously devoting mental energy to developing healthy habits both mentally and physically. To get started with a mindfulness practice, try to devote 30 days to changing your habits by paying extra attention to your nutritional, exercise, and mental health needs and reducing unnecessary distractions that create extra stress such as excessive social media and technology use.
- Walking is great for your heart and your mind. If you feel a panic attack coming on, getting outside to walk is one of the best things you can do right away to help calm yourself down. Walk at a comfortable pace, which may be faster or slower depending on how you feel as an individual and what your body is telling you that you need at that moment. Take deep breaths while you are walking and if you happen to have your essential oils with you, inhale some of the oils while you are walking and breathing deeply. This is one of the most effective combinations to combat an acute panic attack. You can also use one of the guided meditation apps in conjunction with walking, which may also help reduce acute anxiety.
- Sensory Distraction
- This strategy involves using your 5 senses to distract yourself and redirect energy to your body in the present moment. Try stimulating your senses by running cool water over your wrists, inhaling from a bottle of calming essential oils, using a scalp massager to stimulate your ASMR response, visual identification, or other methods. For a full description of how to use sensory distraction to help with panic and anxiety, see my post on the topic here.
- Emotional Support Animals and Pets
- If you have an emotional support animal (ESA) already, then you know how important your animal can be to helping reduce anxiety. Companion animals can have a soothing presence and provide unconditional love. ESAs can be cats, dogs, rabbits, or even snakes. The most important thing is that building a physical connection with your ESA or pet can help you calm down when anxiety is building, and stroking or cuddling your animal can produce feel-good endorphins that combat the negative energy of anxiety. You can check out more about the benefits of animals in this post.
- Art can be an amazing medium to express yourself and cope with overwhelming feelings. If you are artistically inclined and depending on your interests and talents, you may choose to paint, draw, sculpt, write, or play music when you feel overwhelmed to release and re-direct that energy.
- If you (like me) are not so artistically inclined but still love art and want to try using it to help with stress, then Adult Coloring Books are the way to go. There are lots of adult coloring books out there now with many different themes, so pick one and grab a set of colored pencils or pens and try it.
Refocusing Your Mental Energy
What all of these strategies have in common is that they bring your attention from the source of your anxiety and stress back to your own body and mind. They all include a method of directing your energy and attention towards what is happening in the present moment and using that energy towards mental and physical healing.
Anxiety is associated with worrying about the future in some capacity. Many people with anxiety conditions worry about having an unexpected panic attack and they experience stress and fear about whether they will be able to cope with it when it happens. Bringing our attention to the present moment with strategies such as these can help reduce the anxiety that you feel about potential outcomes that may happen in the future. This doesn’t take away our need to think about the future, and it doesn’t change our need to attend to our own needs in the present. But it can help balance those emotions and bring them into proportion.
I think of managing anxiety as a two-part process. You need to have an overall strategy to create a sense of balance and general stress reduction methods to improve your overall quality of life. Then, you also need to have that toolbox full of coping skills that can help you in the acute moments when you begin to feel overwhelmed or panicked. The strategies outlined above can help with both.
If you are regularly incorporating some of these strategies into your life, you will experience an overall reduction in stress and improved sense of balance in your life. However, during moments of panic or overwhelm you want to also have methods such as aromatherapy and sensory distraction to help calm you down when needed.
You may have already practiced some of these strategies before, but if there are some you haven’t tried yet, try to incorporate some new methods into your routine. You may be surprised to find out what works for you, and none of them will do you harm if you practice them mindfully.
Mindfulness has become sort of a catchall term for general self-help advice that focuses on using different practices to attune better to your mind and actions with the hopes of decreasing stress or associated symptoms. Take time to meditate in the morning. Pay attention to your food when you’re eating. Do a gratitude practice every night. Self-care your stress away. It all sounds good in theory, and certainly won’t do you any harm, but what does the term mindfulness really encompass, and is it really something that could change your life? Or it is just another fad and buzzword in the self-improvement culture of today?
As a therapist, I frequently encourage different types of mindfulness practices to encourage my clients to be intentional about their own lives. Attuning to our bodies and our minds and our habits is an important part of both gaining control over our lives as well as our mentality. I often work with people who have had something terrible, or heartbreaking, or unexpected happen to them, and they are struggling for a sense of control. In those times I am often reminded that sometimes the only thing you have control over is your mentality. Sometimes I get pushback from people who don’t necessarily believe that their mentality is within their own power. Their thoughts are stuck in places that leave them thinking:
- How can I help the way I feel?
- What I believe is what I believe, there’s no changing it.
- How can changing my mentality change my circumstances?
- Thinking about my mentality doesn’t change the problems I’m facing.
I can understand why it might sound like a load of new age fluff when people start talking about mindfulness. We have become accustomed to solutions that start and end with well-defined explanations and prescriptions. We like to be able to have a blood test tell us exactly what’s wrong and what treatment is needed to fix the issue. Unfortunately, our minds can be even more mysterious than our bodies are, at least in this day and age. The good news is that our minds are also a lot more powerful than we might believe, and that means that we can use our mentality to improve our overall sense of wellbeing.
I wanted to find out what we really know about mindfulness, and what the evidence says about whether or not it works. Researchers have been studying mindfulness based practices for over 30 years now, and studies have investigated mindfulness as a treatment for conditions such as addiction, trauma recovery, stress, chronic pain, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and more. There was no shortage of research to comb through devoted to mindfulness and it’s various applications, but the results were pretty consistent. Of course, with large bodies of research on a topic as broad as mindfulness, there are going to be variations in the results that studies present. I found the results optimistic, though. There is consistent evidence that when people are introduced to mindfulness based practices as a way to improve symptoms related to various stressors, they report good outcomes when they apply that knowledge.
Because mindfulness practices can be broad in terms of the actual strategies they refer to, here’s a few ideas about what people are referring to when they use that term:
- Deep-breathing practices
- Meditation (guided or self)
- Attuning to senses
- Intentional gratitude practices
- Night-time de-stressing rituals
- Conscious attention to mentality
- Intentional eating practices
Much of the research out there on mindfulness focuses on using one or more of these practices in a specific setting with a specific group of people. So the ways in which this area has been studied lends itself to a lot of different outcomes for a lot of different kinds of people with different kinds of problems. Nevertheless, I found a lot of examples of some really great ways that mindfulness practices are having a positive impact on people.
A study on mindfulness and addiction published this year found that mindfulness based interventions (MBIs) had a significant effect on cravings and substance misuse in treatment for addictions. This is a great example of how mindfulness practices can function as an auxiliary treatment for people. The goal of a mindfulness practices is not necessarily to serve as a replacement for other therapies, but it can be a good asset to use in addition to other treatment, and can function as a sort of enhancer. It may just give people an extra boost when they are seeking help for addictions or other mental health conditions.
Another encouraging example includes this study from PLOS One, which found that over a 6 year period in which medical and psychology students were introduced to mindfulness practices, the students reported significant increases in measures of their wellbeing. This is especially important given the high rates of mental distress, burnout, and suicide amongst medical professionals. As a person in a caregiving profession myself, I know how important it is to maintain a healthy mentality and how overwhelming the stress can get. It’s good to know more evidence is showing how important it is for caregivers to be given the resources and support to incorporate these practices themselves.
Another study from the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health found more evidence that introducing mindfulness in the workplace decreased burnout and reduced stress. This research supports my personal belief that employers should do more to help mitigate stress in the workplace and support the health of their employees by taking it upon themselves to bring stress reduction into the workplace environment. Not only do I believe this will improve employee health and help workers be happier in their work environments, I think it will make workplaces more efficient as well.
There is a lot more research out there on the topic, which I will be working on delving into more this month. However, these studies are a few examples of the research support out there for bringing mindfulness practices into our lives. Our lives have gotten so much more harried and complicated, and sometimes our choices seem out of our control. That’s why mindfulness is helpful in bringing a sense of focus and calm to your mentality, so that you feel more capable of handling whatever life happens to be throwing at you at the moment.
Mindfulness alone cannot solve every problem that you may have, but becoming more intentional about taking care of your mind and staying tuned in to how your mentality impacts your overall mood could help you stick to your goals and keep negativity at bay.
When you are experiencing overwhelming anxiety, or even having a panic attack, sensory distraction can help you re-focus your energy somewhere other than the distress you are feeling. It’s a technique that involves using your senses to distract you long enough for you to calm down or regain your composure. I’m going to discuss a few ways to utilize these techniques and give you some examples so that you can have some extra skills for self-soothing.
You have 5 senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, all of which can be used to help you re-focus and calm down when you are having high stress moments. For each of these there are at least a few ways that you can stimulate your senses to help you distract during high moments of stress or anxiety. I often recommend these techniques for my clients who are trying to find non-medical ways of coping with anxiety and panic attacks.
There are a couple ways you can use sight as a sensory distraction. You can walk outside and start looking around you and focusing on what you see, preferably natural objects, like branches swaying in the wind or clouds moving through the sky. Start to really look for details and try to absorb as much information through your visual observations as possible. Trying to concentrate and store information will challenge your brain to focus it’s energy on something else besides the distress you are feeling at the moment. You could also choose a photograph, piece of artwork or another type of image or object that you find to be symbolic to you. This could be a picture of a relative or family member you love, or something with religious or spiritual significance to you. Just find something that you can look at to remind yourself to center and shift your focus outside of the current moment.
Music is an excellent way to use sensory distraction. However, choose your music wisely. If you are feeling depressed and you go turn on your sad music, you’re not going to feel better. With music we want to think about using opposites. If you are angry or anxious, listen to something uplifting or calming. If you are feeling depressed, turn up your favorite feel good music. Another way to use sound is through the use of meditation apps, audiobooks, or podcasts. Again, think about your choices here. Don’t exacerbate your current distress by listening to something that will further your feelings of anger, anxiety, or sadness. Use an app to calm down with guided meditation, listen to a motivational audiobook, or subscribe to a podcast with a positive theme.
Using smell as a sensory distraction can be very beneficial. Essential oils are great for this part. Good essential oils to use for calming include Lavender Essential Oil, Frankincense Essential Oil , andBlack Spruce Essential Oil . You can actually just grab the bottle and inhale the scents from there, or you could use them in an essential oil diffuser. You can apply on your skin too, but you may need to dilute it with a carrier oil like coconut oil before rubbing directly on your skin. Carry a small bottle of lavender with you for quick aromatherapy whenever you need it.
For this sense, you can think of it in terms of temperature, and focus on either drinking a very cold glass of water or a hot cup of tea. Alternatively, you could suck or chew on a piece of ice. Cooling your body temperature may help calm you down some. You could also try chewing gum or bubble gum, to get more sensation on your tongue and again bring your energy to a different place of focus.
For touch, you could always just grab a stress ball and squeeze away. However, one technique I’ve found can be useful is running your wrists under cold water. Just turn on the faucet and let cool water run over your pulse points, and it may help calm you down by lowering your body temperature slightly and giving you a peaceful sensation on your wrists. You could also use ice for this, either by rubbing ice on your wrist or perhaps your neck and chest. If you have a history of self-harming behaviors, using ice as an alternative to cutting is a good strategy, or you can also use the rubber-band snap method. That just involves wearing a rubber-band on your wrist and snapping it occasionally or when needed to provide an instantaneous re-direction of your focus towards the snapping sensation on your skin. As always, be mindful of what works for you as an individual. With a history of self-harm, you want to make sure this is going to be helpful rather than triggering, so use your own best judgement as to what techniques might be most helpful to you and follow your instincts.
Using these techniques may help you pull some energy away from the feelings of anxiety or panic you are experiencing. By focusing attention to our senses, we give our bodies a chance to let go of that anxiety and re-direct our energy towards something more positive or healing. When managing anxiety, you will benefit from having multiple resources to pull from in order to build your set of coping skills. These techniques can be part of your overall strategy to help manage your symptoms.