It was early. 5:30 a.m. early, and my best friend, Kim Vincenty, pulled into the driveway. We were judging an art show in Fernandina Beach, Florida, for the Shrimp Festival, and I was on my dark front porch with a broom, sweeping the detritus from the live oaks (which, in my defense, drop leaves, pollen pods, and acorns continuously). Kim rolled down her window and said casually, “Putting order to the chaos?”
The Chaos of Mental Illness
The wisdom of those five words has come back to me countless times over the past nine years. Mainly because it was a tongue-in-cheek commentary on my drunken behavior, Kim had witnessed the night before. As a person in recovery from a substance use disorder (SUD), and an eating disorder, it has become my little joke to me when I find myself replaying behaviors that I have taught myself to forswear. I do like to sweep. I have not been diagnosed with OCD, although my friend was correct about my small attempts at calming the chaos in my mind with repetitive actions. Further, research indicates that some individuals with OCD may develop SUDs as a method of coping with their OCD symptoms (National Institutes of Health).
Mental illness is chaotic. Addiction hijacked my brain, causing me to seek, hide, and consume alcohol above all else. The Shrimp Festival remains one of the biting memories of my addiction. I was stumbling around Old Towne Fernandina with a colossal hangover and the omnipresent smell of shrimp. Striving for mental health has been the most rewarding journey of my rather long life. It was also one of the most difficult until I found the coping mechanisms that worked for me. The hashtag #OutsidewithOCD for OCD Awareness Week rings true for anyone in recovery from a mental illness, especially for a nature nerd like me.
Nature’s Remedy for Mental Health #OutsidewithOCD
It is a test of friendship that my relationship with Kim is still on solid ground. Amazing that many years after that eventful Shrimp Festival, Kim is the Founder and President of JACK Mental Health Advocacy, and I am the Director of Marketing at Sanford Behavioral Health and a member of the JACK board. Kim and I have walked hundreds of miles outside together, and I consider nature’s remedy the key to my thriving recovery.
There is no miracle cure for mental illness. Similarly, an SUD demands lifelong management. Lifelong? That is the concept that takes the most getting used to for those of us in long-term recovery. It’s been a couple of years since I have had a spontaneous craving. Luckily, I can compartmentalize. And in the early days of my recovery, I taught myself to envision a favorite spot in nature when the punch-in-the-gut demand to DRINK popped into my brain. During the lockdown phase of the pandemic, being outside saved my mental health. Of course, this is unscientific, but nature just makes me feel better.
1. Nature Makes Us Happy!
According to an article in National Geographic, the frontal lobe of the brain (emotional expression, problem-solving, and memory) deactivates a little when you are outside in nature. And alpha waves (indicating a calm but alert state) grow more robust. It is not surprising that watching a chipmunk scamper under a log or hearing the squawk of an egret makes us feel less alone and happier.
2. All the Senses are Engaged
Outdoor environments decrease our stress levels, reducing depression and anxiety. Intrusive thoughts or cravings are less likely to ambush our best intentions when all the senses are engaged. When I am shark tooth hunting at Little Talbot Island or looking out at a low country wetland, I do not listen to music. Instead, I flood my senses with nature’s remedy and breathe.
3. Experience Childlike Wonder
Experience your surroundings with someone new or find a different place to take a hike. Increase your pace in autumn’s cool air or try a new move – climb a tree, hoot like an owl! These fresh pursuits will increase creativity, decrease blood pressure, improve problem solving, generate deeper sleep, and promote a healthier appetite.
4. Early to Bed, Early to Rise
I can’t promise it will make you healthy, wealthy or wise, but there is magic in watching the sunrise. Apart from the benefits of experiencing awe, simply getting up early to watch the sunrise can help reduce depression, improve circadian rhythm, and awaken your spirituality. And if you are watching the sunrise, you cannot be doom scrolling TikTok in bed, right?
5. Calming Waters
Why do we gravitate toward water? Why is it so hypnotic to watch the waves? Those who live near the ocean swear by the healing powers of the salty sea. And there is nothing more soothing than a long stroll on a deserted beach. Finding a passion like walking near a lake, stream or ocean is good for recovery. Wade, skip a stone, launch a kayak and feel the tension ease.
Nature’s Remedy for Better Mental Health
I still sweep my porch at odd hours. In fact, I have a battery powered leaf blower that probably disturbs the neighbors when I get the yen at dawn. These days it is more of a preference to have a pristine stoop, not the need to order my chaotic brain. When I’m feeling anxious, I pack my backpack and get outside. Writing about it afterwards prolongs nature’s remedy and hopefully inspires others to experience nature too.
In an ever changing and sometimes stressful world, it is nice to know there is constancy. No matter the time of day or season, Mother Nature keeps on keeping on. And after experiencing COVID-19 and the mental health crisis of the past few years, the otherworldly beauty of nature is good for your physical and mental health. These moments in God’s bounty are a gift that reminds us to get out of our head and leap full throttle into our best life.