Mental health during holiday family gatherings, and 5 ways nature helps

If you think you are enlightened, go spend a week with your family

Mental health during the holidays can be challenging. Nature can help.When it comes to sharing the holidays with family, the difference between the closeness we crave and the reality we live can be extremely stressful-and commonplace.

Whether your family is basically emotionally sound or is filled with toxic relational patterns, it can be frustrating and alarming to watch ourselves slide down the slippery slope of triggered emotions and old patterns of relating within minutes of our first holiday greeting. This can be especially true if you have put time and effort into preparing yourself emotionally for the holidays.

What can you do when hopes for holiday memories get overshadowed by frustration and disappointment, or even anger, and grief? How can we recover our sense of emotional balance?

Nature connection helps in these 5 ways:

1) Phytoncides

Phytoncides is the chemical given off by plants that boosts a person’s immune system. Stress and your immune system have a complex relationship, but basically, the more robust your immune system the more resilient you are to stress. Spending time among plants, trees, flowers, and in the open air gives your body a chance to receive the chemical that lowers stress and enhances your immune system. Take a walk outside, visit a local arboretum or botanical garden, or get to a park; 20 minutes out of doors can calm your body, making it easier to calm your emotions.

2) Direct Attention Relief

Direct Attention Fatigue is when our brain becomes drained through trying to focus on many things at once, such as the gift list, food preparation, making sure the kids are using their manners, and the multiple and complex ways we feel toward our family members. Focusing instead on plants, trees, water, leaves, etc., provides Direct Attention Relief and helps us have a deeper well of cognitive strengths when we go back to the holiday happenings. The really amazing thing about this is that we don’t have to actually be in nature for this process to occur. The same benefits are found when we focus on pictures and sounds of nature.

3) Mindful awareness

Recovering your mindful awareness is faster and easier when you are out in nature. Nature helps us lower our heart rate, reduce our levels of stress hormones, increase alphas wave, orients us to peace and calm, and reduces rumination and overthinking our difficulties. All of those things also occur when we are practicing a mindful state. When contact with family whisks us away from mindfulness, contact with nature jump-starts these processes helping us have more success dropping back into a mindful way of relating.

4) Changing venues

Whenever we change our external environment we are giving ourselves a chance to change our internal landscape. An external change takes us out of our established cognitive patterns and opens our minds and internal emotional states. You can heighten the positive effects of this process by deliberately taking the time to find a distinct boundary between the space you are leaving and where you are going. This can be as easy as being mindfully aware of what you are doing as you step across the threshold of your home into the yard, or purposefully placing a stick across the path and stepping over it as you acknowledge you are leaving behind (at least for a while) the emotions of the family gathering.

5) Awe

Awe experiences are self-transcendent. When we feel awe our perception shifts. Engaging with awe takes us away from the mundane and difficult for at least a little while. Nature promotes a sense of awe, and is available when we connect with nature through either the direct experience of being out in the woods or by looking at pictures and hearing nature sounds. Take an “awe break” by looking up at the stars, pausing to admire a tree, or having pictures of nature run on your computer screen.

If you are having trouble keeping positive mental health during holiday family gatherings, you are not alone. 

A survey done in 2017 by the hotel chain Motel 6, revealed that 95% of those traveling felt spending the holidays with family was very important. This survey also revealed that people planned on spending an average of 3 ½ days with their extended family during the holidays. It took only an average of 3 hours and 54 minutes, however, before they reported needing a break from those same family members.

Using nature as a part of our mental health during the holidays helps keep us connected to ourselves and our families, making it easier to have pleasant memories we can cherish for a long time to come.