Getting outside has great mental health benefits

Experts are warning that while self quarantine may slow a viral epidemic, there is a real risk that all this isolation and social distancing will lead to enormous increases in mental health issues across the population. The American Psychological Association says the first signs that your mental health may need a boost include experiencing anxiety, boredom, irritability, and frustration.  I don’t know about you, but lately I feel those things daily, sometimes all in the same hour!

I have been managing these feelings with a little thing I like to call Spring Therapy. It’s easy and costs nothing and most steps are available to anyone. Try even one today and see if your mood doesn’t improve dramatically.

1.Step outside and breath. Many of us are now spending hours in our homes, it’s important not to succumb to cabin fever, defined as a feeling of irritability and listlessness caused by long periods spent indoors. We are also spending lot of time in front of our devices and many studies confirm higher use of electronics can contribute to greater incidences of depression and anxiety as well. A quick fix is to make it a habit each day and throughout the day to step outside.  Numerous studies have confirmed the link between a deficiency in the sunshine vitamin D3, and mental illness. Even a short 15 minutes in the sun can provide the body of a light skinned individual with all the vitamin D it needs for the day. Dark skinned sunbathers need about two hours to get the same amount of vitamin D due to  higher concentrations of melatonin. Breathing is the second part of the prescription. During your 15 minutes, breath in a focused way.  I like a count of 3 breathing in, hold for 4, then release for a count of 5. This type of breathing lowers the heart rate and blood pressure, the very real indicators of a body under stress. Once your breathing has lower your anxiety a bit, finish your time outside with a mindfulness exercise. Close your eyes and listen what do you hear? What to you feel? The answers are unimportant and should not be considered at all, just acknowledged and released. This 15 minutes exercise is also a good to improve clarity and focus, in addition to improving your mood.

2. Take a dog for a walk. Certainly a walk without a tugging, sniffing friend is okay too, but adding our best furry friend shifts focus. Instead of ruminating over what might be worrisome thoughts as we stroll, our focus shifts to a dog’s enthusiasm for the task.  I like to play a little game inspired by my dogs behavior, where I look for 3 new things along a familiar path, like a walk around the block. And if you don’t have a dog, perhaps an elderly neighbor would appreciate an offer to walk their pet. There are also fostering opportunities through local shelters.

3. Go for a walk in the woods. There is scientific evidence that forest is good for us. The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoka or forest bathing is not exercise but just taking in nature, connecting through all senses: we smell the flowers and the wet earth; we see beauty in the changing forms of nature; we hear the chorus of the birds or peeping frogs; we feel the sun on our face and the breeze on our skin; we taste the fresh spring water in the stream. These sensory experiences connect us with the natural world and this connection restores us as we are part of the natural world. One doesn’t need to live in the mountains to get close to nature, even a city park will do if there are trees and quiet. According to a report published by the National Institute of Health, green exercise or exercise done in natural environments alters physiological functioning including stress reduction, restoring mental clarity, improving mood and self esteem. Remember to keep recommended exercise distance of 20 feet between you and other walkers or hikers.

4. Move your practice outside. If you are practicing mindfulness or meditation, look for a quiet, peaceful space outdoors, it might even be your porch. If you can though, move to a grassy area as a secondary benefit of an outside practice is grounding, or aligning yourself with the earth’s frequencies which is known to improve sleep and reduce stress. Yoga is also easily practiced outside and places a practitioner in the greatest source of life-force energy or Prana. There are also many grounding poses that will help release tension. And the sun salutation was created to tap into beneficial cosmic energy. 

5. Put up a bird feeder. Spring is mating season, so there is a lot of activity going on out there. If you don’t have one and don’t want to order one online, try making one out of a used milk or juice carton. There are many homemade feeder ideas online and  they make a great project for a rainy day or if you have little ones at home. Watching our feathered friends trains us in patience and allows us to focus outside of ourselves, which has a calming effect on the busy mind. British researchers say people living in neighborhoods with more birds have lower levels of depression. If you can’t put up a feeder check out live online cameras on Eagle’s nests which can be found now throughout the United States.

6.Plant something. While many do not have a yard to tend, even tending a few sprouting seeds in an inside pot brings pleasure. Watching the hard seeds germinate and burst through the soil, observing their weekly progress, reminds us of our own resilience and ability to grow.  In our house, we are hoping our seedlings will be successfully translated to small decorated pots that we will bring to our neighbors, residents of an assisted living home. Giving us the double the pleasure of watching them grow and then gifting them to folks who cannot enjoy nature as easily as we can during this time of stay at home orders and quarantines.

Try a little spring therapy and remember we are creatures of nature and need her rhythms and seasons to calm our ever busy mind. As Henry David Thoreau wrote: There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.