How to Use Nature to Improve Your Mood

how-to-use-nature
Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “an early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.” And there may be some merit to these words: “Green therapy,” also known as ecotherapy, is rapidly gaining attention from researchers and those in the mental health field. Time spent in nature has long been paired with mindfulness and meditation, but only recently has the scientific community begun to study the mental health benefits of outdoor immersion.

Numerous studies now show that exposure to nature is associated with decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety, improved self-esteem and overall mental health, and lowered levels of perceived stress. Even a simple plant added to a home, office space, or hospital room can have a significant impact on mood and well-being.

If you’re suffering from low spirits, the key to your emotional wellness may be right in your own backyard. Whether you have clinical depression or simply want to improve your mental health, start finding ways to get outside each day. Absorb your natural surroundings by engaging all of your senses and being fully present in the moment. Researchers note that all you need is a mere 20 minutes outdoors each day to significantly boost energy levels and improve your mood.

Here are a few creative ways to sneak more nature into your life:

Bring your walking shoes to work. Instead of heading to the lunchroom or cafeteria for that extra cup of coffee, spend your morning and/or afternoon break outside instead. Walk around your office building for five minutes. Breathe in the fresh air, smell the flowers and fresh cut lawn beneath your feet, observe the trees swaying in the wind, feel the gentle breeze on your cheek. Awaken your senses. Engage your emotions. Give yourself permission to escape from the stresses of work for a brief while and immerse yourself fully in your surroundings.

Get a laptop. Try to schedule some work outside each day if possible, weather permitting. Many cities are now installing free Wi-Fi in parks and other outdoor spaces, making them natural escapes from cubicles and offices. In fact, if you’re a resident of Buffalo, a free outdoor public wireless network is currently being installed along Main Street from the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus to Canalside and Erie Basin Marina. With 30 access points—each with a range of about 250 feet—the network is designed to provide “near-contiguous” outdoor coverage along Main Street from North Street to the waterfront.

Sleep under the stars. You don’t have to plan an elaborate camping trip in the Adirondack Mountains to enjoy the peace and calm that comes from a night under the starlit sky. Arrange a sleepover in your own backyard. Spread out your sleeping bag over a chaise lounge or set up a hammock and swing away beneath night’s sparkling blanket. Listen to the calming sounds of nature and let the universe put all of your day-to-day worries into perspective. Breathe in the fresh air and appreciate the immensity of the universe as you drift off to sleep under an endless starry sky.

Organize/participate in a cleanup event. Sometimes the best way to enjoy nature is to get involved in preserving it. Volunteer opportunities range from collecting litter to leading and organizing a cleanup site, such as a highway or stretch of river. The location can be as tame or as wild as you wish—just don’t forget the bug spray! Find a river to adopt by visiting Living Lands & Waters here or check with your local department of environmental conservation or park service to find volunteer opportunities building or maintaining nearby trails.

When we consider the wide range of unpleasant side effects that often accompany many antidepressant medications such as nausea, constipation, blurred vision, insomnia, weight gain, loss of sexual desire and more besides, it seems incredible that we ignore or dismiss something so entirely natural and free from side effects as our natural environment. Nature can be an effective way to lift your mood and decrease symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, and tension—and it’s right outside our front door and completely free!

Talk a walk on the wild side—literally—for a happier, healthier, more peaceful you.

What I Wish People Knew About Counseling

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The thought of entering into counseling can be incredibly daunting and nerve-racking. Feeling anxious and apprehensive about what to expect from the process, many people will ultimately decide not to pursue counseling. There is an old saying, “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” The fear of the unknown can paralyze us from taking action or creating change.

And while it’s natural for us to fear that which we don’t understand, I think that there exists a slew of misconceptions and misunderstandings about therapy that are sadly preventing people from seeking help and are also contributing to the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Here are a few important elements of the therapeutic process, at least from my own professional lens, that I hope will help to ease your fears as you contemplate taking the plunge:

“No, you are not crazy.”

You are not crazy, nutty, cuckoo, mental, stupid, psycho, or messed up. There is nothing inherently bad about anything you may be thinking, feeling, or experiencing. You are human. And part of your journey as a human includes suffering with pain, sadness, fear, anger, confusion, hopelessness, despair, and all the rest. I don’t think you’re crazy. In fact, I think you are remarkably courageous for entering into the counseling room and laying your heart out on the table, emotionally exposing the deepest, most terrifying, uncomfortable parts of your soul. Vulnerability is a risky thing, and I commend you for taking such a scary step.

“I’m not here to give you advice.”

Although there are many practicing therapists out there who do frequently offer advice to their clients (primarily because I believe it allows them to feel more important and knowledgeable), my education, training, and personal and professional experience have taught me that advice is not generally what people need. And advice giving is not psychotherapy. My job is not to tell you what to do. I believe that people have the answers within themselves, and my role as a therapist is to help guide my clients to their own best solutions.

“The therapeutic relationship is everything.”

I wholeheartedly believe that the therapeutic relationship is the most important ingredient for a successful treatment outcome. If I am unable to facilitate, grow, and maintain a healthy therapeutic connection with my clients, if they don’t believe that I have their best interests at heart, then chances are our work together will not yield a positive outcome (and they will very likely will not even return for a second session). It doesn’t matter what theoretical framework I operate from, what therapeutic techniques I utilize, or how many advanced degrees I possess. At the end of the day, it’s the relationship that matters most. I recall the words spoken to me by a supervisor during my first few weeks as a therapist, “People will not remember what you said, what you did, or what counseling theory you used…but they will always remember how you made them feel.”

“I learn just as much from you as you do from me.”

I have learned more about being a therapist from sitting with my clients than I ever have from any of my textbooks, lectures, class discussions, professional trainings, conferences, etc. My clients are unquestionably my greatest teachers and have taught me more than I could ever learn from sitting behind a desk—everything from how I facilitate sessions, to how I approach my own life and relationships, to how I view the world around me. Each day, I am reminded of the tremendous strength and resilience of the human spirit, as I work with clients who triumph in the face of incredible adversity. Every session, and every client, teaches me to be a better counselor.

“Counseling is a commitment.”

Therapy is not an overnight fix; it’s a process. One that requires considerable commitments of time, energy, money, and a willingness to do deep inner work. It requires consistent attendance at sessions, but even more importantly, a large part of the success of therapy comes down to what you do in between sessions. Are you willing to make changes to take better care of yourself? Are you stepping out of your comfort zone? Completing the assignments we discuss during sessions? I liken it to having a personal trainer. You’re not going to see results right away, but if you’re willing to put in the time and effort to make long-term, consistent changes, you’ll likely obtain the outcome you desire over time. You get out of it what you put into it.

“Most therapists have been in therapy themselves.”

The best therapists I know are the ones who have spent time in the “other chair” and have experienced firsthand how terrifying and vulnerable it can feel to sit down with a stranger and divulge the deepest, darkest parts of themselves. As part of my graduate school training, students were required to undergo a certain number of therapy sessions themselves—which I strongly believe should be the standard across all counselor education programs. In The Gift of Therapy, Irvin Yalom calls personal therapy a “tuning of the therapist’s most valuable instrument…the therapist’s own self.”

“I care.”

My clients will often ask if I care about them—genuinely care about them—given that they are paying me money for therapy. Every so often, I’ll hear a statement like, “You don’t care. You only pretend to care, because I pay you.” Recently, my heart was deeply touched while reading a book by Casey Truffo, as she described a parable about a kindly therapist treating a very depressed and lonely woman. Through tears, the client tells the therapist, “I don’t like that I have to pay you to love me.” And the therapist says, “You pay me for my education, my efforts, my time, and my commitment. The love is free.”

Therapy isn’t easy, but it can be a profoundly rewarding, meaningful, and deeply life-changing experience for those who choose to embark on the journey.