For millions of Americans, the search for remedies to stress can seem counterproductive. Stressors such as money, work, and our current political climate are difficult to escape, and when we do find a remedy, the real struggle is developing the discipline to stay with it. For anyone struggling with symptoms of mental illness, the above-mentioned stressors can often feel unmanageable, and relief from those stressors – elusive.
But, there are methods of alleviating stress that require little effort and can be found in your backyard. The benefits of nature have been with us from the dawn of our species, though it slips our mind as we are absorbed in a world of flashing gadgets and blaring televisions. Let’s start with the basics.
Take a Walk
Seriously! Hit the pavement and get moving. Walking for 30 minutes a day has shown to make people happier, as the brain releases chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. These are the same chemicals released after a workout, similar to “runners high.”
It can also decrease blood pressure and prevent unwanted fat build up. A meta-analysis reported by Harvard Medical School “makes a strong case for walking. In all, walking reduced the risk of cardiovascular events by 31%, and it cut the risk of dying during the study period by 32%. These benefits were equally robust in men and women.”
Why drive to your friend’s house half a mile away when you could walk? As a mental health professional, I encourage clients to take walks, if it suits them, after experiencing a trigger. This allows them to clear their mind and re-center themselves. This in conjunction with deep breathing and mindfulness allows for a calmer state of mind.
Get Near the Water
It’s all around us! Whether you’re located near a coast, by a lake, or a garden with a fountain, being near water has shown to decrease overstimulation. Similar to the results of walking, salt water is helpful in decreasing depression by elevating chemicals like tryptamine, serotonin, and melatonin. These chemicals allow for better sleep and a healthier mental state. If you live near the sea, you may have noticed the calming effect water has on the mind. Studies have shown that people who live near coastlines are generally happier.
According to a Live Science article, the “slow whooshing” sound of moving water has a naturally calming effect on people. These soothing sounds can also help you fall asleep. “Although the sounds of crashing waves can vary considerably in volume, with quiet intervals followed by crescendos, the waves’ hubbub smoothly rises and falls in intensity. That’s in stark contrast to a scream or a ringing phone suddenly piercing a silence, reaching peak loudness almost instantly.”
Slow, whooshing noises are the sounds of non-threats, which is why they work to calm people,”
Take time for yourself and practice mindfulness near water, breathe deeply, focus on your inhalation and exhalation – all this in conjunction will help relieve tension. If you live far from the ocean, consider finding a garden nearby or a park with a fountain. If you’re located by a lake, spend time on the shore using these techniques.
Another tool in the therapist’s arsenal is the woods. According to New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, exposure to forests boosts our immune system. The clean air of the forest is loaded with antibacterial chemicals called phytoncides. Upon inhalation, these chemicals trigger the production of white blood cells, which kill tumors and viruses. Studies have also shown that being around trees lowers blood pressure and elevates mood.
For many people with mental illness the stigma can be overwhelming. Having time to oneself with the sounds of the forest is an opportunity to replenish self-esteem, decrease feelings of sadness, and elevate mood, without a dozen eyes on you pushing for normalcy. Because of the profound effects the forest has on a wound-up mind, it’s recommended to spend time there when you feel frayed. So if you live near the woods, set time aside for yourself or a family member to take a hike or casually stroll through the calm of the forest.
There is something about being in the mountains that promotes healthy living. Most people who have spent time at higher altitudes have experienced a sense of rejuvenation and peace. There’s less pollution, which supports a healthier respiratory system. The changing colors of fall, the calming silence, inspirational scenery – these all elevate mood and buttress happiness. Higher altitudes also support the cardiovascular system and help burn calories faster.
There has long been speculation that something about the quality of life in mountain regions increases longevity for human beings. According to a research report by the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, people living in “counties above 1500 meters had longer life expectancies than those within 100 meters of sea level by 1.2–3.6 years for men and 0.5–2.5 years for women.”
These methods of de-stressing by getting closer to nature should be considered on a person-by-person basis. Nature does provide an array of calming, mood-elevating effects. These approaches to connecting with nature can be discussed with your therapist or doctor if you or someone you know is currently seeking mental health treatment. Find what’s best for you based on your location and individual circumstances.