Mar 8

Play in nature for better mental health

Do you choose nature? Traveling into the woods and experiencing the natural outdoors is not just positive for mental health but it is essential for all human beings. In the depths of winter, the snow is deep, the skies are gray and the days are short. We feel the unnatural pull to hibernate inside, to settle into the comforts of indoor living which usually consists of watching screens, eating foods out of season, over-working, over-drinking and avoiding the discomforts of cold. We all know that going outside and spending time in nature is good for us and we often plan vacations, weekends and holidays around spending time outdoors. The National Park Service has been grappling with a massive increase in visitors, creating reservation systems to accommodate the high number of travelers, up 15 million visits from 2021 to 2022. These numbers tell us that we crave the outdoors and we seem to gravitate to it naturally.

We have all seen or heard about the studies that show the benefits of being in nature. It is good for our mental health and it even might make us nicer. Some studies of twins even show that there may be a genetic component to our connection to nature. The debate of nature vs. nurture does not need to be solved in order for us to create time to spend outdoors daily. We seem to find time to schedule work, soccer practice, concerts, play dates, parties, school activities and even therapy appointments. We are seeing the evidence of our overwhelmed, stressed out and over scheduled culture. According to CNN, 90 percent of adults say the United States is experiencing a mental health crisis. While the numbers are dismal on a national level, and the resources overburdened, is spending time in nature really going to make an impact? The question is not whether spending time in nature is going to cure the nation’s mental health crisis, the question is, do you choose nature?

According to Psychology Today, we make upwards of 35,000 choices a day. Do we get out of bed or sleep in and hit snooze? Do we drink coffee or tea or water? Do we skip breakfast or eat a healthy meal? Do we drive or walk? Do we stand or sit? Do we smile or frown? Do we spend or do we save? Do we cry or do we laugh? Do we speak up or shut up? Do we complain or take action? Do we consume or create? As a therapist for teenagers and their families I often hear the lamenting of the teens who feel that they don’t have any choices due to their age and status as a minor. I challenge that belief by helping them understand that while they may not have the same freedom and choices as adults they do make thousands of thousands of choices a day, just like adults. It’s a mindset shift. If we feel like we don’t have choices, we feel powerless, when we acknowledge and identify that we do have some choice, we feel empowered. What choices are you making daily that need to be examined? Are they in line with your values? Do they move you toward the the person you want to be or away from the person you want to be?

As a therapist for families and teens, I help my clients identify what they value and then explore whether their daily actions match what they say they value. Do you value nature or the outdoors? Can you identify actions you engage in daily that support this value? No adult, or teenager likes to be told what to do. Spending time in nature is a choice for some, for me and many others who have experienced its benefits, it is the only choice and it is essential. How do you view the outdoors and nature? Is there something you want to change in order to make it a priority? If you decide to prioritize nature you will need to schedule it, commit to it and follow through. Maybe it is time to check your priorities and place nature higher on your list. Is nature a priority or value in your life?

I challenge my clients to do the opposite of what they would normally do, challenge their mindsets, get out of their comfort zones, embrace being uncomfortable. While the winter months, dark days and cold temperatures tempt you to stay inside and get cozy and comfortable, challenge yourself to do the opposite, bundle up, get outside and get uncomfortable. Nature is calling you, what will you choose?

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I am a middle aged mom who started traveling at the age of 40. I thought I had lost my opportunity to travel the world after becoming a mom, working full time and having a special needs child. Since 2009, I have been to more than 14 countries, 20 states, numerous U.S. cities and multiple national parks. I am the mother of three adult children, including one with special needs.  I hope to inspire other middle aged mommas to book the ticket and take the trail.

Kimberly Jensen

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The Polliwog pond war

Kimberly Jensen