If You Do Only One Thing For Your Anxiety — Make It This

Photo: Clem Onojeghuo

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately one in five adults in the United States—approximately 43.8 million—experiences mental illness in a given year and approximately one in 25 adults in the United States—9.8 million—experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits their ability to do normal activities.

In other words, if you suffer from anxiety or depression or another form of mental illness, you are not alone. Unfortunately, the statistics are quite as gruesome for children, and the question many of us have in health care is "Why?"

Why are so many people plagued by anxiety?

We may not have a concrete answer to this question, but it could just be that more and more people are living in large, busy cities, where noise and air pollution, high stress, business, and lack of nature are the rule rather than the exception. Indeed, observational and experimental studies have shown that noise exposure leads to annoyance, sleep disturbances, sleepiness, an increased incidence of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, and impairs cognitive performance in schoolchildren.

Air pollution has been associated with psychological distress and social isolation. Along with a lack of exposure to nature, it is not surprising that more individuals living in cities—which are usually loud, busy, crowded, and polluted—find themselves more depressed or anxious than those individuals who reside in more rural environments. If this pertains to you, don't fret. A dose of nature might just be the best thing you can do to combat your anxiety.

Photo: Michael Rosner-Hyman

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Is nature really the best thing for my anxiety?

fMRI studies show that nature works by stimulating the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain like dopamine, which help you feel happier. Studies also show that the closer to you live to green space, the better you are at bouncing back from stressful situations. Immersing yourself in nature has been associated with less activity in fear centers of the brain, lower levels of stress hormones, steadier heart rate, lower blood pressure, and reduced muscle tension. You can't get that from one single supplement!

Now, you might be wondering whether you should be moving out into the country to save your mental health. And while that is one solution, luckily, there are a ton of ways to bring more nature into your life. These tips will help soothe your nervous system, combat anxiety, and support optimal mental health:

1. Make time for nature.

Prioritize time away from your busy life to visit a national park, beach, or forest. Whether it is taking a hike for the day, camping, or luxuriating at a spa in a natural setting for a weekend, aim to do it at least once a week—or once a month if it's a weekend.

2. Bring plants into your home.

To get a daily dose of the outdoors, bring nature into your home with plants, photographs of nature scenes, or by listening to guided meditations that involve scenes of nature. There are a ton of great meditation apps out there, and many of them incorporate scenes and sounds of nature.

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3. Start a garden.

Start a garden outside or inside, taking 20 minutes a day to nurture the soil, water the vegetation, or simply admire what you've sown. If and when what you have created does grow or bloom, eat it! Eating something you have grown yourself will tie you closer to nature and make you feel more connected.

4. Head to the farmers market.

Spend time at farmers markets, which are held once a week in most towns or cities. Laze around, ask the farmers questions as you find out more about produce and how it’s grown. Buy the fresh fruits, vegetables, or meats for your home and savor the homegrown flavors. The closer your diet is to nature, the healthier your microbiome will be, which also has a strong influence on your mental health.

5. Take your workout outside.

Exercise, walk, meditate, or simply relax in the nearest park. Most cities have now designated parks for people to relax, play, and stroll. Take advantage of these areas with the aim of walking mindfully, while engaging all of your senses to be in the experience, for 20 minutes daily.

Ever wondered what to eat (and what to avoid) to decrease your stress levels?

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