While more than 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders, the stresses of life amid the COVID-19 pandemic have boosted anxiety and depression to a crisis level.
Meanwhile, finding effective ways to treat mental health issues is critical for long-term success in managing these conditions.
Engaging With Nature
While mental illness has been stigmatized, that stigma is dissipating as more people are engaged with the treatment of depression and anxiety through psychiatric and medical counseling. Because so many medications have side effects, it’s important to discover treatments that are effective, yet limit pharmaceutical dependency. Finding non-chemical ways to treat these conditions often leads to more long-term success.
One scientifically proven chemical-free way to improve mental health through the reduction of anxiety and depression is by increasing outdoor green activities. Research shows that increased green activities—or living an active outdoor lifestyle—can reduce the amount of medication required to stabilize many mental health conditions. Regular activity outdoors can often be as effective as medication in treating mild depression.
Simply being outdoors working in the garden and walking in the fresh air can be both physically and mentally restorative.
Researchers at the UK’s University of Essex discovered that 94 percent of test subjects in a study commented that they felt green exercise had furthered their mental health in a positive way. Participants felt their physical health specifically improved with walking outdoors. Respondents also reported decreased levels of depression, felt less fatigued and tense after walking outside, and noted improved mood and self-esteem.
In other words, outdoor green activities such as gardening and walking can significantly influence one’s state of mind. These activities, which boost dopamine and serotonin levels, connect a person to the natural outdoor environment.
Brain Neurotransmitters, Sunlight, and Serotonin
Dopamine levels are known to increase in the brain when participating in general outdoor or green activities. Both serotonin and dopamine are pleasure center neurotransmitters that are associated with happiness, joy, pleasure, and love. Serotonin specifically regulates mood, memory, and impulse, while dopamine is closely tied to euphoria, enjoyment, motivation. Dopamine is also responsible for those magical feelings of “falling in love.”
When depression is caused by a chemical imbalance, it’s often associated with an insufficient level of dopamine in the brain.
Sunlight is a proven serotonin stimulator. By exercising outdoors in the garden or walking outdoors in nature daily, you are exposing yourself to the daylight spectrum. Sunlight exposure also appears to be an effective treatment for winter-based seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This particular type of depression is related to changes in the seasons, starting as the daylight ebbs in fall and stretching through the season until there is more daylight exposure after winter.
SAD saps energy and can make you feel moody and sorrowful. Performing green activities outdoors with exposure to daylight has a significantly positive effect on people who suffer from the condition.
One of the great benefits of nature, in general, is that it lends itself to mindfulness. When your mind is filled with all the thoughts about work, finances, and family, there’s no better cure than to weed or tend to plants outdoors, for instance. Gardening when we are distraught or stressed about something that is weighing heavily on us enables our minds to be intrinsically focused on the present.
Life’s difficulties and dramas melt away as we address our task.
Plants need love. Tending them takes our eyes, our hands, and our hearts. While out in the garden and very focused on our tasks, we hear the birds and wind through the trees, we see the beauty before us in flowers and color, we touch the soil and plants, we smell the magnificence of all of nature on a spring day, we can taste the harvest of a cherry tomato.
Whether gardening or bicycling or walking, living mindfully is often defined as “living in the moment.” Spending time outdoors walking in a park creates an environment where one must live in the present moment engaging in an activity that is good for you and nature. Nature can calm an anxious mind and allow that focus on the present to wash over you emotionally in a way that few things can.
Discovering an outdoor place where you can connect with nature therapeutically while performing green activities can be life-changing. These green activities can be defined as anything outdoors in sunlight: walking, running, gardening, and cycling are all good examples.
Adding green activities to your medical treatment regimen can contribute to reducing anxiety and depression levels.
Shawna Coronado is an anti-inflammatory lifestyle author, coach, media host, photographer, and writer. She is recognized for wellness and anti-inflammatory lifestyle, organic gardening, and healthy nutrition. Shawna dreams of helping others live a healthier, more active, lifestyle. You can learn more about Shawna at www.shawnacoronado.com