Month: March 2017

Vintage photo of a peaceful, beautiful nature scene with river and trees.

Smell The Roses: The Benefits of Nature Therapy

With the hustle and bustle of our daily lives and responsibilities, it can be hard to remember to take time to “stop and smell the roses,” as they say. However, the world around us is full of beauty and tranquility which can do wonders for our mental health. In fact, studies are starting to show that taking some time to go outside and experience nature can be therapeutic. Dr. Emily Deans is a board-certified adult psychiatrist who specializes in evolutionary psychiatry and nature therapy. Dr. Dean believes that our bodies and minds fare best in circumstances and environments for which they had evolved. She explains that “one major difference between our current lifestyle and those of our evolutionary past is an increasing distance from natural settings with increased urbanization.”

Modernity vs. Mental Health

While modernity certainly has its perks (better medical and scientific knowledge as well as the convenience of technology) our modern lives can also be responsible for heightened levels of stress, anxiety and depression. Interestingly, in the past, when a person was ill they were usually recommended a holiday or excursion to a quiet, peaceful countryside or seashore. The idea was that by removing the individual from the overwhelming environment of the city, they’d be much more likely to recover from their ailments and restore their spirits. According to Dr. Dean, “the popularity of vacations to beautiful national parks, camping, outward bound, and even local breaks for a picturesque walk in a local greenspace to clear the mind would speak to some empirical evidence that nature does soothe the savage beast.” And she’s not alone in this assumption, as many scientists are now examining the health benefits of nature therapy with more interest than ever before.

Nowadays, more than 50% of people live in urban, modernized areas. This number is estimated to increase to more than 70% by the year 2050. We are far more removed from the natural world around us than our ancestors ever were, and this has come with a number of consequences. This increased urbanization has been associated with higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and other forms of mental illness. Comparatively speaking, those who grew up in more rural settings have been shown to have lower levels of stress. Actually, following a large, 20 year-long study, scientists found that exposure to more greenspace has a more positive effect on an individual’s overall wellbeing. Moreover, even just images and sounds of nature have been shown to decrease levels of stress for individuals who were also exposed to negative stimuli.

A Study in Nature Therapy

Dr. Dean cites a “large survey of mental health and neighborhood greenspace in Wisconsin,” which reveals that there was a “significant correlation between the availability of nature and lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress,” as further proof of the existence of this positive relationship. In addition to these studies, there have been many more which have produced similar findings. Dr. Gregory Bratman and his colleagues conducted one such study at Stanford, the results of which have been published. In this particular study, a small group of healthy volunteers were instructed to go for a 5 kilometer walk around the San Francisco Bay area. Half of these participants embarked on a scenic walk viewing the local mountains and bay, whereas the other half walked along the busy streets of the area. The researchers found that the individuals who took the nature walk reported decreased feelings of anxiety, rumination, and other negative feelings. These participants even demonstrated improved performance on cognitive tests when compared with their counterparts who had walked in the city.

Later in the study, the researchers conducted MRIs and measured blood flow in the brain for healthy individuals who went for a 90 minute walk in either a natural or urban setting. They found that those who walked through nature had less activity in an area of the brain known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex. This area is associated with rumination, which is a symptom of both anxiety and depression, and causes the individual to worry about the same distressing thoughts repetitively.

More Nature, More Peace of Mind

Dr. Dean summarizes these findings thusly: “in a world and environment where our brains are working overtime and we think and roll over ideas and worry, exposure to nature seems to get us out of our heads, with likely positive longitudinal benefits.” So what can we do to maximize our time in nature? Dr. Dean suggests that in our increasingly urbanized world, the creation of more accessible greenspaces can do wonders for our collective mental health. Not to mention, doing so can help preserve the natural beauty of the world around us for generations to come.

Picture of a brain lit up with machine pieces inside of it.

Automatic Thoughts vs. Conscious Thoughts

Beyond our conscious minds is something that is called the automatic mind. This is responsible for processing information automatically, that is, without our conscious awareness. In other words, this is the part of our minds that allows us to understand our surroundings and experiences without us having to focus on things individually. That would be exhausting, not to mention overwhelming!

Automatic minds are active in pretty much everything we do. For example, when we drive, we may be paying attention to the road, but simultaneously thinking about the day’s events. Maybe we’re mulling over a conversation we had with a coworker, or trying to figure out if we left the stove on. This is our automatic mind at work – we’re able to think about our day whilst managing to move our hands on the wheel, our feet on the pedal, and watch the road all at once! When the need arises, however, we can seamlessly shift towards conscious attention. In most cases, we snap out of our unconscious reveries when we realize we’re approaching our exit or need to make a turn to reach our destination.

Understanding the Dynamic – Automatic vs. Conscious Mind

Our thinking can operate on two levels – conscious and unconscious, or automatic. Sigmund Freud was a pioneer in this field and his work examining the unconscious mind is well documented. However, psychology has progressed a long way since then. In Freud’s theories, the unconscious mind was a battlefield where a war waged between instinct, which existed in the dark corner of our minds called the id, and our level-headed problem-solving egos. According to Freud, we developed defense mechanisms like repression, projection, and displacement to protect our conscious minds from this battle within ourselves. This understanding of how the mind works largely influenced the dichotomy between reason and passion that was especially popular in the 20th century.

These days many cognitive psychologists perceive the mind a bit differently.  For example, rather than seeing our unconscious minds as some sort of battlefield full of inner conflict and turmoil, they perceive it as an automatic mind full of sophisticated information. These days, our unconscious mind is more of a processor that sifts through all of our stimuli to allow us to better prioritize and respond to information. In fact, we owe a lot of our daily behaviors to these automatic processes which enable us to act outside of our ordinary awareness.

Introducing the The Mind Trap

Negative thinking can operate on an automatic level. This happens when we find ourselves falling habitually into negative mindsets. Dr. Jeffrey Nevid, Director of the Clinical Psychology program and Professor of Psychology at St. Johns University explains: “when our thinking becomes reflexive or automatic, we suspend our ability to control how we think about our experiences.  We feel angry because we think angering thoughts, sad because we think depressing thoughts, and anxious because we think worrisome thoughts.” Dr. Nevid refers to these automatic negative thoughts as “mind traps,” and they are usually distorted and exaggerated, especially when consciously compared to reality. However, if we don’t point these negative thoughts out, they can continue to harm us unconsciously, leaving an impact on our overall emotional and mental health.

Emotions Cannot Exist in a Vacuum

Dr. Nevid explains that “emotions cannot exist in a thought vacuum any more than fire can exist in an oxygen vacuum.” According to him, our troubling emotions are actually the result of excess meanings which we impose on events we experience. To become aware of these misconceptions, he suggests that we can become better aware of them, and, as a result, we can correct them by inserting rational alternatives instead.

Dr. Nevid provides an example in the form of the teachings of ancient stoic philosopher Epictetus. He says that “we are not influenced by things themselves, but by our opinions or interpretations of things.” It is for this reason that in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) patients are guided by therapists through processes of identifying their triggering thoughts which contribute to their emotional distress. Through this they are then taught to substitute these thoughts with more rational and adaptive modes of thinking.

We can learn to both recognize and correct disruptive thoughts which lead to behavioral problems and emotional turmoil. A rational dialogue with oneself can make a big difference in terms of dealing with troubling emotional effects like anxiety, depression, worry, and anger.

Girl with dress and rain boots on walking through rain puddles.

Five Techniques to Move Forward through Difficult Times

It can be said that life’s a journey. The only way to progress through this journey is to take steps forward. Throughout our lives we will encounter a number of twists and turns, perhaps even a few pitfalls. Obstacles make life challenging and rewarding. It’s important to remember that even though we may find life difficult at times, we must continue moving forward.

Depression and anxiety can make moving forward seem impossible at times. Overcoming these challenges starts as simply putting one foot in front of the other. Learning small daily strategies can help dismantle the overwhelming negative feelings caused by anxiety and depression, and other similar disorders. This can be hard, especially when we find ourselves in the midst of a difficult crossroads, or a path that seemingly leads to nowhere. The only way we can find our way is to continue moving forward.

Five Tips to Continue Moving Forward in Therapy

1. Don’t Give Up

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly – don’t give up! Just because an obstacle emerges, no matter what size, does not mean that the journey is over. Dr. Barton Goldsmith, a multi-award winning psychotherapist, explains that “once you quit, it is never quite the same. Whether it’s a relationship, a job, or your life, you are in charge of your choices. Giving up may enter your mind, but find some way to keep going, even if you have to do things a little differently.” So when the going gets tough, don’t be afraid to find another path, or, to find a way to overcome the obstacle obstructing your way. The journey continues from there.

2. Stay Positive

It may seem a bit cliche to say that positivity is key, but the truth is often worth repeating. A positive mindset can make all the difference when it comes to progressing through one’s life and it’s challenges. It is also important to remember that the world is not our enemy. True, we will all face our own shares of ups and downs, but when we are confronted by the “downs”, we must remember that they don’t happen because the universe hates us or that we are the victims of some sort of terrible cosmic vendetta. Rather, by adopting the perception that the world around us exists to do us good, we can learn to see the opportunities that surround us, instead of just focusing on the obstacles. In this way, we open ourselves up to the possibility to flourish, and learn not to assume failure.

3. Take Things One Day at a Time

A simple yet effective piece of advice is also to take things one day – or one step – at a time. Trying to tackle problems head on all at once is the easiest way to get overwhelmed and, consequently, want to just give up. Instead, it helps to learn to tackle things one at a time. For example, if we’re having problems within a relationship, attempting to fix all of them at once can seem not only difficult but outright impossible, which can lead us to feeling defeated before we even try. But by approaching our problems one step at a time, we can improve this relationship by strengthening the parts that comprise it. To begin with, we might start by improving communication, then maybe we schedule more dates or quality time. One-by-one we take on the things that were causing us to feel upset and stressed, and by doing so we not only improve the health of our relationship, but our own personal health as well.We don’t need to do everything at once in order to see progress. In fact, we may find that it is easier to move forward when we are taking steps, rather than large, uncoordinated leaps.

4. Go at Your Own Pace

Life is not a race, therefore there is no need to rush progress. Dr. Goldsmith states that “you may have been beaten down, but you are not broken. Even if you have suffered and lived through a life-altering trauma, if you still have a beating heart and air in your lungs, you can get back on your feet.” The key is doing what we can, when we can, and taking breaks when we need to. These periods of rest can be what we need in order to get the energy to continue forward. However, we must remember that taking breaks should not be the same thing as stopping entirely. In other words, if we’re trying to get healthier and decide to have a cheat day, we shouldn’t allow that day to become everyday, otherwise it defeats the purpose. We must continue on our journeys, but there is nothing wrong with taking time every now and then to collect ourselves and refocus on what we really want in life.

5. Don’t Be Afraid of Disappointment

Unfortunately, disappointment as natural to life as as breathing. People from all walks of life experience disappointment, regardless of who they are. That being said, disappointments, while admittedly discouraging, should never stop us from moving forward. There is nothing wrong with feeling disappointed from time-to-time, but disappointment is not an excuse to give up or stop trying to accomplish what we want. No matter what, we must keep going. After all, we have a lot to see and do before our journeys end. So why stop here?

Learn more about moving forward through the journey of self-improvement and mental health treatment by calling our office @ 800-378-9354.
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