This is the second post in my Emotional Intelligence Series, and in this post I’m going to discuss setting boundaries. Boundaries are important in all relationships, whether personal, professional, or romantic, because they let others know what you are or are not willing to tolerate, what you will or will not do, and what you expect from others based on the roles of your relationship.
When you do not have strong boundaries with others, you can end up feeling taken advantage of, disrespected, or powerless. Yet often when you learn how to take control of situations by setting stronger boundaries, you will find that having boundaries is actually what helps you overcome those feelings.
What Are Unhealthy Boundaries?
First, let’s look at some ways that unhealthy boundaries can impact your life and the relationships you have with others, both romantic and platonic. When you do not have healthy boundaries, you may:
When you have poor boundaries, you may be confused about whether someone is trustworthy or not. This can happen when you don’t trust yourself, because you may have a feeling that someone is shady or shouldn’t be trusted, but you don’t feel confident enough to speak up for yourself or say “NO” when someone wants your trust.
- Get pressured into doing things you don’t want to do
When you have difficulty saying ”NO” and setting limits with other people, you may find yourself getting pressured into doing things that you don’t want to do. This could mean doing favors for others, even when it means neglecting your own needs or using up your own resources.
- Take on responsibilities that are not yours
Having poor boundaries means that others will be able to put responsibilities on you that you may not want to take on. This could be at work, where a lazy coworker is always getting you to do things for them, or it could be with a friend who is constantly asking you to babysit at the last minute so they can handle their other responsibilities while you put your own needs aside.
- Overly-tolerant of inappropriate behavior
People who struggle with healthy boundaries may have difficulty confronting others who are behaving inappropriately, because they feel uncomfortable with confrontation or are worried about keeping the peace. However, this can lead to others taking advantage of that and continually pushing the boundaries in the wrong direction. This can be especially damaging when you are dealing with someone who is using their position of power to push boundaries, such as in sexual harassment in the workplace, or even sexual pressure from someone in a social setting.
Sometimes it can be hard to know who to trust, but when you struggle with setting boundaries, people who are looking for your vulnerabilities can exploit that struggle. When you do not listen to your internal voice that is telling you not to trust someone, you may end up trusting the wrong person, which sets you up for betrayal or disappointment.
People who are manipulative, narcissistic, or who have power and control issues are looking for those who are vulnerable so that they can manipulate them. When you show others that you have poor boundaries in one area of your life, people who are looking for someone to manipulate or control will see that you are vulnerable in that way, and can target you for abuse or control. This could mean getting you to give them money, allowing them to control certain aspects of your life, or pressuring you into situations that make you uncomfortable or cause you to take on risk that you shouldn’t have to take on, like asking you to do something illegal.
How Do Unhealthy Boundaries Affect You?
All of these effects can leave you feeling powerless, hurt, and confused about how you can get people to respect you and respect your limits. When you don’t feel like you are in control of the situations you find yourself in, you can end up feelings guilty or ashamed when you realize that someone has taken advantage of or manipulated you in one way or another.
This is why establishing boundaries in all areas of your life is so important, including in your personal life, you romantic relationships, your work, and your family life. You may know that you need to set boundaries with your kids, for example, in order to keep them safe and raise in a way that will help them excel in the world they are growing up in. It can be harder, though to set boundaries with your boss, for example, or with your family, because of established roles about who has authority and who has expectations.
How Can I Establish Healthy Boundaries?
YOU can have expectations too. It is perfectly fair for you to have expectations of your workplace environment, or your family interactions. You are not always going to be able to change the behavior of others, but you can speak up for yourself and set limits on certain issues when you need to.
This may include things like being firm about when you need to leave work, or choosing to leave a family gathering that has gotten too tense and uncomfortable for you. There are a few things that you can do to help establish healthy boundaries in your life with the people around you so that you can feel more in control of yourself and the situations you are in.
- Acknowledge to yourself when you are feeling uncomfortable, and ask yourself WHY. Is it because another person is invading your personal space? Has someone asked you to do something you are uncomfortable doing? Does something seem inappropriate or weird? Trust your instincts!
- Know what you are not willing to tolerate and what your limits are. Do you need to set a limit on how often your best friend can borrow your car or how many times you can pick him/her up? Think about what you are reasonably able to do for others and what your limits should be.
- Get Assertive: Learn about the differences between passive, aggressive, and assertive communication and get comfortable with being assertive. This takes practice if you are not used to it, so look for situations where you feel a little more comfortable asserting yourself and practice standing up for yourself and your needs. This could be as simple as letting the waiter (politely) know that your order is wrong instead of just brushing it off and saying “oh well, I’ll eat this anyways”, or it could be more significant, like letting your boss know that NO, you will not be able to work late again because you have other things to attend to (you don’t have to explain what else, it is YOUR life). Practicing assertive communication will help you in setting boundaries in all areas of your life.
- Know who is allowed to be emotionally close to you: Think about who is in your life that deserves your trust, and who does not deserve your trust. You may still have to interact with some people that you do not trust (like that shady co-worker). Yet you can still limit your contact with those who you do not trust to Needs Only Basis. This means that you only interact with them when you need to, such as to complete a work project or to get information needed for your own tasks. Otherwise, avoid the small talk and politely but firmly avoid the person when possible. Practice using assertive statements such as “I’m in the middle of [insert important task here] right now, but I will get back with you when I’m finished”. The goal is just to set that limit so the expectation is that you are only available for work-related tasks within your own role in the work environment. When you have someone who does deserve your trust and with whom you can allow into your emotional space, make sure that they know you trust them and that you are counting on them to safeguard that trust. This is about YOU setting expectations for how you want to be treated.
Setting boundaries can be hard if you have struggled with being assertive and confident in your life. Luckily, setting boundaries is a skill that can be learned, and you can become more confident over time when you set appropriate boundaries with others.
These skills contribute to your overall emotional intelligence because when you are confident about the limits and boundaries you have with others, you will be less likely to get into situations where you feel out of control or powerless, and you will be more likely to command respect from others who can see that you have limits.
Think about where in your life you need to set some limits by acknowledging the times that you have felt taken advantage of or other times when your boundaries and limits were not clear, and how you wish you had handled those situations. Then take a look at what you could have done differently if you had strong boundaries and limits. Begins to practice being more assertive (not aggressive) in situations where you feel safe and then expand that practice to other areas where being assertive may be less comfortable. As you grow and expand where you are setting limits, you will grow more comfortable exerting your own power by establishing boundaries in all areas of your life.
New Year’s resolutions can be a great way to set goals for the upcoming months and assess your progress from the past year, but many people have become exhausted and cynical about new year’s resolutions, and it’s not hard to see why.
“New Year, New You!” messages bombard us in the media, imploring us to better ourselves and stop using excuses for not achieving our goals. It’s tempting to jump into the latest weight loss challenge or resolve to magically change your life by tidying up. But maybe you didn’t follow through with last year’s resolutions, so this year you don’t even want to try. Or perhaps you just don’t like the pressure of having to declare victory or failure at the end of the year and announce your determination to try again.
I’ve seen many people saying they don’t like new year’s resolutions because they don’t follow through or because it feels like a competition, but they still have goals that they are striving towards. For some, it seems like there’s just a semantics issue that doesn’t change the spirit of practicing reflection and striving for new goals. I think all of us, however, can agree that setting goals and letting go of past mistakes is a good thing.
Personally, I love New Year’s resolutions, despite the fact that I’ve fallen short of many of mine. Sometimes I don’t even remember what it was by March. That doesn’t stop me from continuing to work on my goals every year, I just seem to decide to put the ones I won’t really get to under the title of “New Year’s Resolution”. Maybe that makes it seem less impactful when I don’t accomplish it. Because sure, I fell short of my New Year’s Resolution, but doesn’t everybody? If I put it on my goals list, though, I won’t put it on the back burner.
That being said, I still love the whole spirit of the New Year because it is a chance to step back and reflect on the past year and see how things have changed, and set your sights to making the next year an improvement in one way or another.
It can be hard to reflect on your year and see that you’ve fallen behind in your goals, or realize that your life has changed in a profound way, perhaps not by your own choosing, such as when you lose a loved one. But reflection doesn’t have to be about measuring progress or failures. It can also be about recognizing your strengths and acknowledging your weaknesses. Not because you want to overcome every flaw and become a more perfect version of yourself, but because recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses is part of being your own authentic self.
So for those of you out there who are ready to set your resolutions and smash them this year- resolve away! I will always encourage you to set high goals for yourself and go for them. Just make sure that your goals are centered around what you really want, and not what you think you should be doing to present a picture perfect version of yourself to the world. You’ll be more likely to follow through if you set goals for yourself.
For those of you who can’t stand the idea of making another failed New Year’s Resolution, keep pressing forward with your otherwise named goals and create plans to accomplish them year-round. You don’t need pomp and circumstance and a Facebook announcement or a new challenge to sign up for to keep plugging away at your career/life/family/health goals.
I want to think our culture has broadly shifted away from the high pressure, high stakes, dogged commitment to presenting perfection as the ultimate goal and solution to all your problems in the New Year. I have a tendency to think that’s true, but then I realize that the reason I don’t see those kinds of messages that much anymore is because I choose not to. I have, myself, shifted away from those kinds of high stakes pressures to be practically perfect in every way, so therefore I surround myself with like-minded social accounts and steer clear of any media, businesses, or product lines that cater to a self-critical mentality. Yet I realize that those kinds of messages are still glaringly present for many people, and we are all still susceptible to absorbing negative messages wrapped in a self-care package, particularly young people.
I’m choosing to UnResolve this year. This just means that I’m planning to continue to work on all of the goals and plans that I have and I’m going to continue to value myself, my family, and my community this year. I’m going to reflect on my past year with gratitude for everything I got to experience and accomplish, and I’m going to look forward to everything still to come and make concrete plans to make progress on my goals. But I’m not going to set another arbitrary resolution that sits on the shelf and does nothing but stare at me, only for me to realize mid-June that I’ve been busy working on my goals.
My life continues to flow year in and year out. My goals will never be truly finished, because I will always look for new ways to move forward, and I constantly resolve to try something over again that I haven’t accomplished to my satisfaction, no matter what time of year it is. By the way, I haven’t read Marie Kondo’s book, but I did start watching her Netflix show “Tidying Up” and I find her totally adorable and I’m not sure why she gets so much flack for being tidy. I should probably go fold up my laundry now, though. Happy New Year everyone!
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
- Feelings of choking
- Nausea or stomach pain
- 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:
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.
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.
- 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 Lavender, Frankincense, Bergamot and Black Spruce .
To use this method:
- Rub a few drops of Lavender Oil onto your chest or décolletage area
- Then take a few drops of Frankincense Oil and rub it onto the back or nape of your neck and across your shoulders/traps
- Rub a few drops of Black Spruce Oil or Bergamot Oil onto both wrists or inner forearm area
- Begin walking at a comfortable pace, preferably outdoors if possible, and taking deep breaths.
- Bring your wrists up to your face as you walk and inhale deeply
- Take at least 10 deep breaths with your forearms up near your nose and continue to walk
- 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.
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:
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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)”.
- 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”.
- 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!
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.