4 Easy Ways to Boost Mental Health
Get Dirty, Get Well
By now it’s no secret that our mental health, emotional health, physical health and spiritual health are all connected. A growing body of research, and plenty of intuitive knowledge, shows that our well-being is also all linked to the world around us and how we interact with it.
Below are four methods—some tried and true, others newly researched—for building mental wellness wherever you are. The best part is, these tend to be good for physical and emotional health as well.
Most of these activities have been shown to increase the brain’s release of serotonin, which is a good thing. Serotonin, or the “happiness hormone,” impacts our entire bodies. It enables brain cells and other nervous system cells to communicate with each other and is the key hormone for stabilizing our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness. Serotonin helps us feel both calm and focused. It also helps with sleeping, eating, and digestion.
Soak in the Sunshine
One thing we can do to give ourselves a mental health boost is take in some sunshine. For many years, we have been hearing how bad the sun is for us, and of course, there are harmful aspects to ultraviolet rays. However, there are also benefits. The trick is being intentional and careful with when and how we soak in the sun.
Moderate sunlight exposure gives us a quick and ongoing mood boost by increasing the serotonin levels in our bodies. It helps us feel calm and alert.
Sunlight cues special areas in the retina, which is what triggers this release of serotonin. So the brain’s release of serotonin is a process that begins in the eye. At night, darker lighting triggers the pineal gland in the brain to make another hormone called melatonin, the sleep hormone. The brighter your daylight exposure, the more melatonin you produce at night. This supports deep sleep, a well-functioning circadian rhythm, and lower stress reactivity.
Decreased sun exposure leads to a drop in serotonin levels, which can then cause depression. In the North, we are more likely to experience this type of depression in the wintertime, when the days are shorter.
Get Your Hands in the Dirt
Did you know that there is an entire world within the soil? It is not only beneficial, but critical for us to interact with this world. Getting dirty is good for you! Soil is full of bacteria; some of them are good for our immune systems, and some actually boost happiness.
A study published in Neuroscience found that exposure to soil-based bacteria encourages the production of serotonin, making us happier and accelerating our capacity for learning.
How does it work? Mycobacterium vaccae bacteria cause an immune system response in the body, causing serotonin-releasing neurons to fire in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This is the part of our brain involved in mood regulation, and these same nerves are targeted by antidepressants such as Prozac.
So effective is soil in making us happy that recent studies found that treatment with mycobacterium vaccae can alleviate symptoms of depression.
Goodbye prozac, hello dirt!
Try Earthing & Forest Bathing
Earthing, or walking barefoot on the earth, is more than just a pleasant sensory experience for the feet. The planet has its own natural charge, and its surface contains a vast supply of electrons. Growing scientific research has revealed a number of physical and mental health benefits from the relationship between our bodies and the electrons in the earth. Modern lifestyle separates humans from such direct contact with the earth, but as it turns out, we seem to do better when we’re connected.
The research suggests that our disconnection from the earth may be a major contributor to physiological dysfunction and unwellness. Reconnecting with the earth’s electrons promotes intriguing physiological changes and many subjective reports of well-being.
Shinrin-yoku, also known as forest bathing, is a healing practice that originated in Japan. The idea is to immerse oneself in nature, while mindfully paying attention to sensory experience. Often involving a slow walk or seated meditation in a forest, it aims to integrate and harmonize humans with the forest
As with many types of mindfulness practices, forest bathing has a range of well-researched positive mood effects. These include reduced hostility and depression, decreased fatigue, anxiety and confusion, and an overall relaxing effect on participants. In Japan, higher forest density has even been suggested to lower overall mortality rates.
Connect with Nature
In general, spending time connecting with the natural world is beneficial to our mental health. Connecting with the natural world helps us regulate our emotions. For example, being in a nonthreatening natural environment is soothing to the parasympathetic system. In these settings, instead of feeling fear and anxiety, we become calm and relaxed. This can help with stress reduction and immune function.
Being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, can reduce anger, fear, and stress and increase pleasant feelings. In addition, people who spend time in nature experience reduced blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and stress hormone production.
In hospitals, offices, and schools, even a simple plant in a room can have a significant impact on stress and anxiety. Further research shows that in hospitals, patients with a view of trees tolerated pain from surgery better than those who had no view of the natural world. These patients even spent less time in recovery in the hospital.
It doesn’t seem too surprising that being outside, in nature, under the sun, in the forest, and even getting a little dirty is good for us—physically, mentally, and emotionally. I think as humans, we have always known this. Now we have plenty of scientific research to back it up.
Live With the Earth, Not Just On It
If there is one large conclusion to be drawn, leave it to me to do it: we are not separate from the earth. We need the earth, not just for food and air and water, but in all its elements and forms.
So get out there and soak in the sun on your skin, absorb the forest into your pores, and make contact with the electrons beneath your feet. Even if you don’t have a specific mindful practice about it, try to make as much time as you can to get close to the natural world.
Our platform is full of people who get their hands in the dirt and faces in the sun. We encourage you to check them all out!