Psychology

How to find happiness in nature (Mental Health Awareness Week 2017)

As we are currently towards the end of the 2017 Mental Health Awareness Week, I will tackle suicide and depression.

Last year in Japan, more than 25,000 people took their own lives. That’s 70 every day. The vast majority were men.
Those figures do not make Japan’s the highest suicide rate in the world in a developed nation.
That dubious title belongs to South Korea. But it is still far, far higher than virtually all other wealthy countries.
It is three times the suicide rate in the United Kingdom.

“Isolation is the number one precursor for depression and suicide,” says Wataru Nishida, a psychologist at Tokyo’s Temple University.

Talk therapy (psychotherapy), antidepressant medication, and lifestyle changes are often essential tools for managing major depression. But sometimes just soaking up some sunshine, breathing a little fresh air, and feeling your toes in the grass can provide relief from depression symptoms too.

Although some research shows that being outdoors can be a mood booster, the science behind it hasn’t been fully proven. “Much of the evidence of the positive effects of outdoor living and exercise is anecdotal,” says Brad M. Reedy, PhD, a partner and the director of clinical services at Second Nature Wilderness Programs in Duchesne, Utah. Fortunately, there are many ways to get outdoors and test the theory for yourself.

The Benefits of Going Outdoors

わびさび Wabi-sabi

“Wabi-sabi” refers to a way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and peacefully accepting the natural cycle of growth and decay.

Wilderness therapy programs, such as those run by Dr. Reedy, use nature to teach skills that can also help you manage symptoms of major depression. “By meeting challenges and problem-solving in a natural setting, self-esteem and a sense of self-efficacy are improved,” he says.

Being in the great outdoors lends itself to mindfulness, Reedy says, which is a key element of a type of evidence-based therapy known as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). This therapy encourages accepting things that make you uncomfortable versus struggling with them. “DBT has been shown to be effective in treating mood disorders and chronically suicidal individuals,” he says.

In addition to nature’s calming effect on depression symptoms, being outdoors gives you a great excuse to exercise, another important way to help manage depression. While exercise boosts endorphins — natural body chemicals that elicit sensations of pleasure — exercising outdoors can improve self-esteem and reduce feelings of depression, anger, and tension, according to a review of research published in the journal Extreme Physiology & Medicine in 2013. 木漏れ日 Komorebi
“Komorebi” refers to the sunlight that filters through the leaves of trees.
物の哀れ Mononoaware

“Monoaware” is “the pathos of things.” It is the awareness of the impermanence of all things and the gentle sadness and wistfulness at their passing.

“During the worst of my depression and loss of hope and self-esteem, hiking gave me concrete goals, the satisfaction of achieving those goals, and a source of hope in planning and achieving future goals,” Sederquist says. “Hiking is like entering a time machine, a timeless experience. Deep in the woods, away from the traffic noise, all you feel is the exertion, your breathing, and the elements around you. It’s impossible to be distracted by your everyday worries and concerns.”

— Dick Sederquist, an avid hiker, credits time spent in nature with helping him manage the depression he’s had his whole life. The retired engineer-turned-author and motivational speaker goes hiking when he needs a mental boost.

“I use the outdoors to get into my body for a walk, a jog, a bit of yoga, or lying-on-the-grass meditation. Being outside helps clear my head, lift my spirits, and increase my focus on the present moment. I notice all my problems seem lighter and less stressful. Throwing off my shoes and splashing in a stream does more for my mental state than weeks of talk therapy does.” Kristen Kalp 森林浴 Shinrinyoku

“Shinrinyoku” (“forest bathing”) is to go deep into the woods where everything is silent and peaceful for a relaxation.

幽玄 Yuugen

“Yuugen” is an awareness of the universe that triggers emotional responses that are too mysterious and deep for words.

Whether you have major depression or simply want to improve your emotional health, start finding ways to get outdoors each day, Reedy says. Absorb nature with all of your senses. Listen to the birds, smell freshly cut grass, dip your toes in a pond or stream. If you usually exercise in a gym, try taking your workout outside — go for a walk, a run, a hike, or a bike ride. Head outside to have lunch or dinner.

Spending time in nature can’t replace your prescribed depression treatment plan, but it can be a helpful complement to it. There’s something about the great outdoors that soothes the soul.

“Gratitude and mindfulness, beauty and serenity are inherent in nature. The silence of nature quiets the mind and offers a person the opportunity to get in touch with the core of the self.”

Find out your good mental health score

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