Archive for June 2018

De-Stress in Nature: The Mental Health Benefits of Connecting With the Great Outdoors!

For millions of Americans, the search for remedies to stress can seem counterproductive. Stressors such as money, work, and our current political climate are difficult to escape, and when we do find a remedy, the real struggle is developing the discipline to stay with it. For anyone struggling with symptoms of mental illness, the above-mentioned stressors can often feel unmanageable, and relief from those stressors – elusive.

But, there are methods of alleviating stress that require little effort and can be found in your backyard. The benefits of nature have been with us from the dawn of our species, though it slips our mind as we are absorbed in a world of flashing gadgets and blaring televisions. Let’s start with the basics.

Take a Walk

Seriously! Hit the pavement and get moving. Walking for 30 minutes a day has shown to make people happier, as the brain releases chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. These are the same chemicals released after a workout, similar to “runners high.”

It can also decrease blood pressure and prevent unwanted fat build up. A meta-analysis reported by Harvard Medical School “makes a strong case for walking. In all, walking reduced the risk of cardiovascular events by 31%, and it cut the risk of dying during the study period by 32%. These benefits were equally robust in men and women.”

Why drive to your friend’s house half a mile away when you could walk? As a mental health professional, I encourage clients to take walks, if it suits them, after experiencing a trigger. This allows them to clear their mind and re-center themselves. This in conjunction with deep breathing and mindfulness allows for a calmer state of mind.

Get Near the Water

It’s all around us!  Whether you’re located near a coast, by a lake, or a garden with a fountain, being near water has shown to decrease overstimulation. Similar to the results of walking, salt water is helpful in decreasing depression by elevating chemicals like tryptamine, serotonin, and melatonin. These chemicals allow for better sleep and a healthier mental state. If you live near the sea, you may have noticed the calming effect water has on the mind. Studies have shown that people who live near coastlines are generally happier.

According to a Live Science article, the “slow whooshing” sound of moving water has a naturally calming effect on people.  These soothing sounds can also help you fall asleep. “Although the sounds of crashing waves can vary considerably in volume, with quiet intervals followed by crescendos, the waves’ hubbub smoothly rises and falls in intensity. That’s in stark contrast to a scream or a ringing phone suddenly piercing a silence, reaching peak loudness almost instantly.”

Slow, whooshing noises are the sounds of non-threats, which is why they work to calm people,”

Take time for yourself and practice mindfulness near water, breathe deeply, focus on your inhalation and exhalation – all this in conjunction will help relieve tension.  If you live far from the ocean, consider finding a garden nearby or a park with a fountain. If you’re located by a lake, spend time on the shore using these techniques.

The Forest

Another tool in the therapist’s arsenal is the woods. According to New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, exposure to forests boosts our immune system. The clean air of the forest is loaded with antibacterial chemicals called phytoncides. Upon inhalation, these chemicals trigger the production of white blood cells, which kill tumors and viruses. Studies have also shown that being around trees lowers blood pressure and elevates mood.

For many people with mental illness the stigma can be overwhelming. Having time to oneself with the sounds of the forest is an opportunity to replenish self-esteem, decrease feelings of sadness, and elevate mood, without a dozen eyes on you pushing for normalcy. Because of the profound effects the forest has on a wound-up mind, it’s recommended to spend time there when you feel frayed. So if you live near the woods, set time aside for yourself or a family member to take a hike or casually stroll through the calm of the forest.


There is something about being in the mountains that promotes healthy living. Most people who have spent time at higher altitudes have experienced a sense of rejuvenation and peace. There’s less pollution, which supports a healthier respiratory system. The changing colors of fall, the calming silence, inspirational scenery – these all elevate mood and buttress happiness. Higher altitudes also support the cardiovascular system and help burn calories faster.

There has long been speculation that something about the quality of life in mountain regions increases longevity for human beings.  According to a research report by the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, people living in “counties above 1500 meters had longer life expectancies than those within 100 meters of sea level by 1.2–3.6 years for men and 0.5–2.5 years for women.”

These methods of de-stressing by getting closer to nature should be considered on a person-by-person basis. Nature does provide an array of calming, mood-elevating effects. These approaches to connecting with nature can be discussed with your therapist or doctor if you or someone you know is currently seeking mental health treatment. Find what’s best for you based on your location and individual circumstances.

Summer Heat and Human Behavior

It is now a well-known fact that weather conditions impact on how people feel and function in their daily lives. In some cases the weather affects physical and emotional health.

During the winter months it’s called SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder. Gray skies, snow, cold temperatures and a lack of sunlight, because many people to feel depressed during the winter months. These same people experience a boost in mood with the advent of spring and its increasing amount of sunlight and warmer temperatures.

At present, during the summer of 2012 there is an intense heat wave covering much of the United States. This has caused alarm among the health and mental health community. There are a host of heat related illnesses that are seriousness enough to result in hospitalization and death. Among these are dehydration, heat stroke, increased blood pressure and many other illnesses.

There are also some serious mental health issues that result from the heat. This is evidenced by the fact that there is an increase in psychiatric hospitalizations during the summer months. There is also an increase in suicide attempts, acts of violence, increased irritable and angry mood. Hot weather also causes people to feel tired and unmotivated to do very much.

There are many types of medications that make it necessary for people to remain in air conditioned environments. For example, for those who take anti-psychotic medications, the sensitivity to heat is increased. There are other medications that make it necessary to limit exposure to sunlight, particularly for those who want to go to the beach. Whether medication is for psychiatric or some other health problem it’s essential that patients consult with their physician about the side effects of heat and sunlight.

Older people, especially those who are 65n years of age and older, are especially vulnerable to the impact health has on health and mental health.

Generally, it is recommended for all of us to drink a lot of water or other liquids to prevent dehydration. Some of the drinks recommended for athletes are a good idea. It’s a good idea to limit coffee and alcohol because they tend to dehydrate. If it’s necessary to go out, wearing a hat is a good idea as well as going out during the morning or evening when temperatures cool and the sun is not intense. For those who must work outside, consult your doctor about how best to protect your health during a heat wave.

Stay cool, both physically and mentally.

Horses, Autism, and Healing

Horses don’t see a child with autism. They see a child.

When Rachel was seven, her mom, Lynn, took her to three different child therapists for what she called traditional talk therapy. Rachel hated it and, after a while, refused to go. Most of the time, Rachel was simply unable to sit still. Although there are no drugs that can cure autism, Rachel was periodically put on medications — including Haloperidol, Thioridazine and Fluphenazine (all antipsychotics) and Carbamazepine (an anticonvulsant and mood stabilizer) — in the hope that one of them might improve some of her everyday functions. Lynn said, “It was like there was something inside her that kept making her move, which she couldn’t turn off.”

The first time Rachel arrived at the horse farm, her equine counselor Sherri led Rachel over to a large gray horse named Alfie. Rachel stopped about two feet in front of Alfie and looked up at his soft, dark eyes gazing down at her. After about a minute, Rachel lifted her hand toward Alfie’s nose. Alfie dropped his head and sniffed Rachel’s fingers. Rachel quickly pulled her hand away, turned, and walked toward the gate. Alfie followed her.

When she got to the gate, she turned back and was amazed to see Alfie standing right behind her. Sherri walked over, looked at Rachel, and said, “Alfie likes you.” Rachel’s mouth opened in an overwhelming smile. As Lynn told me this, she became emotional and said, “I had never seen Rachel smile like that before in her whole life. She could tell that Alfie was interested in her and that it didn’t matter to him that she was autistic.”

Horses are naturally curious. Their curiosity is often motivated by the possibility of finding something that might feel good, taste good, or be fun to play with. Once they know they are safe from predators or anything that exhibits predatory behavior, their apprehension or fear of any person, place, or object turns into curiosity. Rachel was nonthreatening and had offered her hand to Alfie; he had investigated and smelled it, and then she had simply walked away. Alfie had become curious and followed Rachel.

Horses reveal their thoughts and feelings with their body language and behavior. They do not ask, demand, or expect anything from us. They want to feel safe, comfortable, and get along. When Rachel experienced this with Alfie, it was unlike any interaction with another person she had known. Lynn said that Alfie showed Rachel that she could trust him, and if she could trust him, one day she might learn to trust people. As Rachel continued at Good Hope Farms, she started interacting with other girls and their horses.

Horses don’t see a child with autism. They see a child. Autistic children know this, and it feels good to them. In order for anyone, autistic or otherwise, to grow, heal, and have positive relationships with others, they must first have a positive relationship with themselves. Horses have the ability to make humans feel good about themselves.

Autism is now considered the fastest-growing developmental disability in the United States. Some of the most enlightening discoveries about the healing effects horses can have on people with autism are revealed in a book entitled Animals in Translation by Dr. Temple Grandin, a professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at Colorado State University.
Dr. Grandin’s findings in the field of animal-human relationships are not only remarkable, they’re transformative. Some of her most compelling research is found in the similarities between horses and people with autism. It is based on Dr. Grandin’s firsthand knowledge, as she herself is autistic.

Dr. Grandin reports that there is often a special connection or identification that occurs when an autistic person begins to interact with a horse. She points to a possible basis for this, stating that both horses and autistic people think in pictures, not words or verbal language, and both are hyperspecific. Whether it’s a horse or a human, we are both powerfully attracted to that which is most familiar.

As with so many other men, women, and children, horses have enabled some of those with autism to become more confident, more trusting, and to feel, even if only for a moment, love for themselves and others. When an autistic child feels the unconditional acceptance from a horse, I believe a small part of their soul is healed