Ironically, May is Mental Health Awareness month as the world manages through the COVID-19 pandemic that so tests our wellbeing. This year, Spring unfolded in 2020 like it does every year. So too did a wave of emotional distress associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. In terms of people’s mental health, the social isolation, quarantines, working from home, or even worse- losing one’s livelihood- has robbed many people of experiences that provide a sense of purpose and joy in their lives. We’ve had to put aside activities from which meaning is commonly derived. Activities like going to work, with its inherent socialization value and accompanying sense of accomplishment, achievement and of contribution to a mission. Also gone are socializing in groups with friends and extended family; attending in-person faith activities; attending school or college classes; exercising with others; and participating in or viewing sporting or entertainment events. These normal, routine activities play a large role in not only providing structure, but also in providing meaning and enjoyment to life.
Now that Spring is here, there are more options to improve our mental wellbeing despite the stress, anxiety and related mental health issues brought on by the pandemic. Many research studies have shown the physical and mental health benefits of exercise or for that matter any physical activity. But what if you’re not a gym rat, running is not your thing or you don’t own a Peloton?
Get outside and walk
There are many wonderful physical and mental health benefits of walking. Walking improves self-perception and self-esteem, mood and sleep quality, and it reduces stress, anxiety and fatigue. Physically active people have up to a 30% reduced risk of becoming depressed, and staying active helps those who are depressed recover.
Moderate physical activity, like walking, can improve a person’s cognition (thinking), while decreasing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and even schizophrenia. Walking can help relieve or lessen stress.
And if you live near a park or a forest, walking can be even more beneficial. Research has shown that walks in the woods dramatically improve mental health. Forestry England has gathered data from a string of studies that it says shows there is strong scientific evidence that visiting a forest can improve mood and attention span, and even enhance psychological stress recovery. According to Forestry England, walking among trees reduces levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, and a forest walk can boost the immune system through breathing in phytoncides, which trees emit to protect themselves from germs and insects.
Tend to your garden, tend to your mental health
People are extremely resilient despite today’s unusual challenges. This mental health fact was highlighted in a recent publication in, of all things, the journal, Landscape and Urban Planning. Research has long found that spending time in natural settings has health and wellbeing benefits. This research also found that tending to a small garden is actually a mood enhancing activity. And gardening is something available to millions of Americans who have a garden spot in their yards or a space as small as a balcony, porch, patio or deck. The study involving several thousand adults found that gardening has as much benefit toward improving one’s mood as does that most frequently recommended stress-reliever, exercise. It found that gardening had as significant impact on one’s sense of wellbeing (happiness) as walking, biking, or eating out at a sit-down restaurant (remember that?).
How can an activity that is usually much less intense than exercise impart similar wellbeing benefits? It’s because gardening embodies many aspects that are associated with a sense of wellbeing and a reduction of the subjective feeling of being stressed. Gardening involves activities such as being out of doors; engaging in light exercise that also requires some level- but not an intense level- of mental engagement; being present in the moment (mindfulness); being surrounded by plants and nature; and having the prospect of eating well. There is also a sense of purpose in gardening and that is growing the garden to fruition. And there is an opportunity to let go of the great creator of stress-perfectionism – and a chance to observe measurable, concrete progress as the garden grows.
So, this Mental Health Awareness month take advantage of Spring, the warm weather and sunshine. Get outside and walk and if you’ve never considered gardening now is a great time to start. Maybe gardening will be come part of our “new normal.”
Espyr has been helping people – employees, students, members – achieve and maintain good health so they can perform at their best for over 30 years. Clients in the most challenging occupations rely on Espyr’s industry leading coaching, counseling and mental health advocacy programs to maintain employee health and well-being. For more information contact Jeffrey Joo at 888-570-3479 or firstname.lastname@example.org.