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“Humans are basically just houseplants with more complicated emotions.”
I can’t remember where I first saw that quotation, but I can remember my lips twitching into a smile over its cutesiness. I probably wouldn’t have given that word picture a second thought if not for running into the quotation several times more. (I tend to pay attention to coincidences.) As a gardener and observer of nature, I knew the basics of what plants need for growth and survival: water, nutrients, light, and air. All it took was me making that mental list to realize the tremendous power of this person-houseplant comparison for anyone in search of greater health and wellbeing.
As a licensed mental health counselor, I am always talking to my clients about the importance of drinking their water, eating well, moving their bodies, and spending time outside, in nature. These are the basics of self-care, I tell them: they are foundational. It’s not uncommon for clients to be impatient with the mundanity of these discussions. The question of whether you’re guzzling your recommended daily ounces of H2O or making time for weekly nature walks can seem insignificant to someone struggling with rage, overwhelming anxiety, or a crippling mental health crisis. And yet, there are few things more certain to provide stable footing for healing and progress than these basic building blocks of physical and mental health.
*No Wonder We are Wilting*
Drink your water. Lots of it.
Eat at regular intervals.
Put green food in your body.
Spend time outside: with the trees, in the sunshine and the water.
These are the basics – practices that are essential to life and growth. Put them down with pen and paper and we all agree that we couldn’t (or in some cases, just shouldn’t) get by without them. And yet, in our daily lives we often ignore, downplay, scorn, or doubt their importance. Most of us know we should be drinking more water, for instance, but we may be unaware that dehydration is correlated with fatigue, tension, and anxiety. We don’t make the connection between our depressed mood and the pots of coffee replacing our daily water intake. We lament our fast-food consumption and keep promising to start eating better,, perhaps even knowing that there is a strong connection between nutrition and mental health. But we are busy and stressed as hell and, when it comes down it, we’re just not sure we believe changing what we eat will really make a difference. As for regular exercise, we know, we know, we know what needs to be done, but habit is inertia and, anyway, who is going to do the laundry while we’re off on our nature stroll?
So, we under-water, under-nourish, and under-air-and-sun ourselves. We wilt. And we wonder why we feel so “off”, anxious, unwell, even after we’ve seen a counselor, worked through our issues, done some of the other things we’ve been told will set us right again. Fact is, the basics and mental wellness go hand-in-hand.
We are really, basically, just houseplants. And that’s actually pretty exciting, because knowledge is power. Armed with this truth, we can take some simple, concrete steps that will help us bloom.
We’ve all seen him. The guy at the gym gulping from a gallon-sized jug of water between bench-press sets. Am I the only one more in awe of his H2O-capacity than the weight on the bar?
“Point taken,” you may be thinking. “I need to drink more water.”
Yes. Yes, you do.
You need to drink more water than you do coffee, Red Bull, or Diet Coke. You even need to drink more water than you do that acai-berry-guava-mango-vitamin infused smoothie you think boosts your immunity and fat-burning abilities. Do it even if you don’t find water terribly tasty or interesting. When your body lacks optimal hydration, it will be next to impossible for you to sustain the energy you need to meditate, do your CBT homework, access the boundary-setting language you’ve practiced with your therapist, or even simply get through your day.
Am I saying you have to quit coffee cold? That you should never have any beverage other than the holy libation of good ole H2O? Not at all. But I am encouraging you to drink more water. Way more water than you do currently. Start with that. There are plenty of recommendations around exactly how much water is ideal, but you can just keep it simple and just fill up your vessel of choice and start drinking. Then refill and drink some more.
The next time you’re feeling tired, headachy, pensive, irritable, or just vaguely unwell, drink some water. You might be surprised at how much it helps.
Food is can be medicine. It really depends on the kind of food.
Extensive research has been conducted on how the types, quality and quantities of the food we eat affect our physical health, and considerable research points to its effects on our mood, energy level, and mental well-being as well. In fact, according to the president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research, Felice Jacka, “A very large body of evidence now exists that suggests diet is as important to mental health as it is to physical health…a healthy diet is protective, and an unhealthy diet is a risk factor for depression and anxiety.”
So here is another weapon in our wellness arsenal. When your mood is down, your anxiety high, your body out-of-sync, take a look at what you’re putting into your body. Are you eating any vegetables? How do you feel after consuming that McDonald’s Big Mac? Maybe make some changes. As with your liquid choices, these don’t necessarily have to be big ones. Small adjustments can add up to big results over time. Could you swap your extra-large iced coffee with nineteen sugars and a pint of cream for a medium? Or have just one coffee a day, rather than four?
Perhaps even the thought of small changes feels overwhelming. If so, focus on eating as much whole food (read: not from a package) as possible, and consider seeing a registered dietician for extra support. I find that thinking in terms of nourishing myself – rather than merely feeding myself – is helpful.
Movement blesses body and mind. Our fitness-and-weight oriented culture ensures that most of us are aware of the physical benefits of an active lifestyle – oppressively aware, even. But the intimate connection between body and mind extends those benefits inward as well, so that exercise can be both preventive therapy and treatment for depression, anxiety, and a host of other issues.
If formal, sweating-it-out-at-the-gym exercise is your nemesis, or you have a history of exercise as self-punishment, the good news is that the same “law of littles” that applies to water and nourishment also works here. Studies have shown that mood begins to improve just five minutes into physical activity, and mindful movement is as effective (if not better) than a traditional workout. What sets mindful movement apart from a CrossFit class or five-mile run is its focus. It’s not about losing weight, getting ripped, or achieving an athletic goal. Rather, its focus is on tuning into the physical experience of being in your body without rules, judgments, or expectations. A mindful approach to movement frees us from making exercise another “to-do” we need to squeeze into our weekly schedule. Movement instead becomes an invitation to know ourselves – our entire, mind-soul-body selves – better. We sometimes resort to a frenzy of weight-lifting, running, biking or other form of exercise in order to stave off or numb negative feelings, but doing so only provides short-term relief. Moving to lean into (rather than escape) ourselves results in greater peace, positivity and relaxation.
So what does mindful movement look like? Lots of things. Start with becoming more aware of the movements your body does naturally, the ones that create feelings of ease and connection. That might look like taking a long walk just to walk (not to burn calories), feeling the solidity of the ground beneath your feet and the strength of your legs. It might look like dancing. Or yoga. Or stretching and breathing. Try to keep your mind on what you are doing, on your breathing, and away from your to-do lists. You might do this for ten minutes a day or thirty. All that matters is that you move, and do so mindfully.
Sunshine and Air
In the 1999 movie Office Space, a disengaged employee named Peter Gibbons vents about the banality of his workday existence: “We don’t have a lot of time on this earth! We weren’t meant to spend it this way! Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements.”
From a ‘basics’ perspective, Gibbons nails it. There has to be more to life than our jobs, our obligations, our kids’ carpool, or Netflix. For many of us in the modern age, our daily responsibilities keep us indoors, at work, and zeroed in on “getting things done”. In fact, these zones of comfort we’re used to operating in (our busy schedules, our homes, our own or others’ expectation of us) make us more prone to a problem-focused state being:
“I never have enough time.”
“How will I ever get everything done?”
“What will they think of me if I can’t do this for them?”
In a problem-focused mindset, our world can seem very small, with our problems taking up the majority of the space. When we spend time outside, however, our overall sense of wellbeing improves. The warmth of the sun on our face, the texture of the breeze, the silhouette of tree branches against a blue sky…this sensory bath draws us outside ourselves and outside of that heavy, consuming internal dialogue. We are invited to be more present and connected to the world around us. Like a child engrossed with a fuzzy caterpillar or a team of ants carrying food back to their colony, outside we are invited to forget, for a moment or two, everything else but the wonder and mystery of this great world we live in. Presence has been shown to have an incredibly positive impact on our physical and emotional health.
So spend some time outside every day. Go for a walk, even if it’s a short one to check your mail, and allow yourself to forget for a short while what you’re returning to at the end of it. Sit out on your porch with a glass of water. Step outside to watch the stars if you get home too late to do anything else. Whatever you choose to do, give yourself permission to see that time as just as essential as your water consumption, your nourishment, and your movement. Because it is.
Back to Basics
The ‘basics’ are what they sound like: foundation stones for our growth and flourishing. When we respect the important role of the basics in the larger work of living our best lives, the other work we do –
therapy, medication, meditation, mediation – will be more fruitful.
Because let’s face it: we’re really just houseplants…with more complicated emotions.