Walks In Nature During Depressive… | Counseling | Therapy

Walks In Nature During Depressive Episodes

Amanda Martinez — Intern therapist

During depressive episodes image

Walks In Nature During Depressive Episodes

Have you ever seen a pawpaw tree? Asimina triloba, or the American pawpaw, is a fruiting tree native to Pennsylvania. People have described its taste ranging from a ripe banana to a custard-like combination of pineapple and mango. It's America's largest edible fruit, and largely resembles an unripe mango when found on the tree. With Spring officially here, dormant paw paw trees will soon begin to bloom with distinctive reddish purple flowers, beginning their cycles of growth once again. Intriguing, right? However, if you are experiencing a depressive episode, it may be hard to get out of bed, let alone go on a nature walk to see one.

Walks in nature during depressive episodes can be used as a beneficial tool when you are feeling down. Similarly, looking to flora and fauna on these walks as a source of inspiration may help to alleviate feelings associated with depression, such as sadness and loneliness. However, for many people experiencing these feelings, getting outside may feel like a task.

Consider this tip as your invitation to get outside and to reflect, using nature as your guide. First, we will figure out what you may want to take with you to feel comfortable and safe on your walk. If you’d like, you can take a moment to consider some of the questions in the activity section towards the bottom that may help you to think about and engage on your experience outside.

What Do I Need?

If you are considering a walk in nature, you may imagine hiking gear and supplies to pitch a tent. Sure, you may need those things for a longer hike, but the goal for a walk in nature when you're feeling depressed is to improve your mood with the help of some low intensity physical movement outside. Studies show even short walks in nature stimulate endorphins, your body's feel good chemicals, which may lessen feelings of anxiety and ruminating thoughts associated with depression. So, with that, here are some things to considering bringing:

- Comfy shoes, such as sneakers

- Water

- Snacks (Such as a granola bar, banana, nuts, etc.)

- Charged phone and/or map

- A journal, piece of paper, and/or pen

Adjust these things in relation to the season. For example, in addition to comfy footwear, water, and snacks, a Summer nature walk may benefit from sunscreen, mosquito, and tick repellant. Accordingly, a Winter walk may benefit from a thick pair of socks, a warm jacket, and gloves. Dress appropriately for the weather: a raincoat for Spring showers, or shorts for Summer heat. Above all, consider your safety and comfort level. When picking a spot to walk, look for a clearly marked trail or path within a local park or woods near you. If you find yourself in an urban setting, don't be discouraged! Nature walks can be done in big cities, too. Look for local parks near you; even a walk around the block can introduce you to things you've never noticed before. Trees, flowers, animals, and even mushrooms are waiting to greet you in the most unassuming of places.

I'm Outside... Now What?

Keep walking as you would normally, and notice the weight of your body. Some questions you may want to ask yourself are: “What am I feeling in my legs and feet?” or "How does the air taste?" Questions like these can be used as a way to check in with your physical self; feel free to adjust your posture, your laces, or to drink some water. You can ask yourself other questions such as, “What do I hear?” or “What colors and patterns am I seeing?” By asking yourself these questions, you are focusing on what’s happening in real time, allowing yourself to actively participate in the moment. This can be challenging to do during a depressive episode, but is an essential skill to managing depressive symptoms.

Every season is an opportunity to observe change and growth. In the Springtime for example, you may notice plants that have lost their leaves are sprouting new leaves. You may hear the sounds of a red winged black bird, a bird found all over the U.S., singing the warm days ahead. Think of the dormant paw paw tree, unfurling its curious flowers with the cold days of Winter behind it. What can plants, or a tree like the paw paw, teach us about resilience, adaptability, and even connection when we’re feeling down? Here are some examples to consider after or during your walk; feel free to find a quiet place to sit down as well.

Stratification: Resilience During Dark Times

Many seeds require stratification to germinate. After someone decides to plant a pawpaw, for example, they must first put the seeds in a cold, dark, moist environment (like the back of the fridge) for several months for them to begin the process of germination. The pawpaw tree, and plants all over, have the innate understanding there is work to be done in the shadows for change to occur.

Activity: Think about a challenging time in your life where resiliency helped you grow. In what ways were you able to be flexible, open, or closed? Can you identify previous moments of resiliency during a depressive episode?

Adaptability: Responding to Change

Pawpaw trees have been around for thousands of years, and over that time, have developed a highly successful system for survival under a variety of favorable, and unfavorable, circumstances. For example, it's one of those rare plants that pesky rabbits and deer will avoid, due to its off-smelling twigs, leaves, and flowers. Pawpaws are able to grow in diverse conditions, withstanding a broad range in temperature, from Winter cold to Summer heat.

Activity: Can you recall a time when you had to adapt in order to successfully complete something? It could be cooking a meal when you didn't have all the ingredients necessary for the recipe, or addressing a leaky roof after a heavy rain. How did you respond to the situation? What resources did you need to pull from, or establish, to address it?

Reframing: It's Okay to Be Different

If you're having a ripe pawpaw for the first time, you may be curious, or even skeptical, by its outer appearance. Some pawpaw varieties will have turned to various hues of brown, or almost black, before it is ripe enough to enjoy. Underneath its fragile, paper-thin skin, is a delicious offering for the animals who find them on forest floors or city parks. For humans, it's the opportunity to savor its fragrant, juicy flesh, or to simply marvel at how such a unique fruit is available to us.

Things found in nature can teach us that our beauty is not correlated with our self-worth. The pawpaw, for example, helps us find value in the parts of ourselves we deem imperfect, and invites us to challenge the parts of ourselves we deem defective. For example, unwanted stretch marks after the birth of a child can serve as reminders of the incredible capabilities of the human body. "Unsightly" scars can serve as reminders of our strength if we reframe the way we look at them.

Activity: Find something unappealing to you. It can be a food you don't like, a bug that makes you feel icky, or even a part of your body you're uncomfortable with. Try to reframe it, or look at it differently. What happens to what you've chosen when you change the way you think about it? What happens to its worth or value after you regard it in a different way?

The Root Of It All: Connection

The pawpaw was an important food in Native American diets. In fact, archaeological data has shown us that American Indians, such as the Shawnee, had a whole month dedicated to the fruit. The Cherokee used the bark of paw paw trees to make rope and string.

Many indigenous peoples all over the world recognize their relationships with nature as integral for their ecological, cultural, physical, and spiritual well being. In the hustle and bustle of our modern world, it can be easy to feel disconnected. This disconnection can cause feelings of loneliness that may intensify difficult emotions during a depressive episode. Walks in nature during such times may serve as a reminder of our interconnectedness to the natural world. For example, we depend on air and water for our survival; our bodies are largely composed of water, just as the ocean is.

Activity: A walk outside affords us the opportunity to understand the interconnectedness of ecological systems with our own lives. Can you observe ways connection plays out in nature within ourselves as a part of nature, or the natural world within itself? For example, butterflies rely on flowers for pollen and nectar, while flowers depend on butterflies for fertilization.

Nature offers a holistic approach to mental health that, along with traditional therapeutic techniques, can help illuminate the darkness during depressive episodes. For clients that are seeking therapy, The Center for Growth has locations in Virginia, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, with Telehealth services in Conneticut, Delaware and Florida. For more information about ways to learn mindfulness techniques that can help you enjoy a walk outdoors, recognize and practice resiliency, or how to adapt during challenging situations, our therapists can help. To learn more, you can schedule online with a therapist at The Center for Growth. If you would like to talk to a therapist as soon as possible, you can call (215) 922-LOVE (5683) ext 100 to be connected with TCFG intake department.

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