Emotional Health · Health

Dr. Pat Consults: 5 Ways to Improve Your Emotional Health That Don’t Come From a Bottle

12344288173_3d36135f04_zGardening can offer a lift to your mental health. (Image by Kerry Woods via Flickr, Creative Commons License)

Dr. Patricia Yarberry Allen is a collaborative physician who writes a weekly Medical Monday” column for Women’s Voices for Change.  (Search our archives for her posts, calling on the expertise of medical specialists, on topics from angiography to vulvar melanoma.)

This week, Dr. Pat has asked Megan Riddle, M.D./Ph.D.— a psychiatry resident at the University of Washington and a graduate of the Weill Cornell/Rockefeller/Sloan-Kettering Tri-Institutional M.D.-Ph.D. Program—to unpack some of the simplest things we can do to lift our mental health and that don’t require a doctor’s prescription.


Dear Dr. Riddle,

I hit the big 4-0 at the beginning of this month. As part of turning 40, I decided to make a resolution to be healthier—both physically and mentally. I’m the mother of three growing boys (ages 7, 11 and 13) so needless to say they have been my focus and sometimes I’ve neglected my own health as a result. I started this month with a trip to my doctor for a check-up (it had been a number of years). Fortunately, I got a clean bill of health. I have lots of ideas for changes I can make to improve my physical health—I am cutting way down on the processed foods, working to incorporate more fruits and veggies in our diet, and starting a (semi)regular workout routine.

I’m less sure about what to do with my mental health. I’d say I’m a generally in a pretty good place mentally, but deal with the typical anxieties and stresses of juggling kids, my husband, and a busy work schedule. It sometimes leaves me feeling harried and, although I don’t feel I’ve ever dealt with depression, I do sometimes get in a funk. Any suggestions for optimizing my mental health? I should add, I’d rather avoid pills—I’m not opposed to medicines, but don’t want to take anything I don’t have to. Also, with three kids, money and time are both a little tight, so if you have any lower budget options that aren’t too time intensive, that would be great.



Dr. Riddle Responds:

Dear Cheryl:

I applaud your resolutions and you ask a great question. With the barrage of drug ads popping up everywhere from TV and the Internet to magazines and bus stops, it can be easy to forget that some of the simplest things we can do to lift our mental health don’t require a doctor’s prescription. They also don’t necessarily need to take a big chunk out of your paycheck. Here I’ve included a number of activities that research has shown improve mental health.

  1. Grow a garden: Maybe it’s the satisfaction of watching buds blossom into flowers, biting into that first homegrown tomato of the season or the feel of sun-soaked soil at your fingertips, but whatever it is, gardening offers a boost to your mental health. A series of studies have confirmed this, showing that gardening reduces stress, decreases depression, and increases happiness. One study had people spend as little as half an hour on a small garden plot, either sitting there reading or actively gardening. Both gardening and reading decreased levels of cortisol—a marker of stress. However, gardening caused a more dramatic decrease, and there was a greater boost in mood as well. Live in an apartment with no space to grow your own? Consider getting involved in a community garden. They are popping up in vacant lots across the country and offer the additional benefit of community engagement, which can also lift your mood. Not an outdoorsy person? Add some houseplants. Bringing greenery into your home and workplace has been shown to sharpen mental acuity and ease stress.

Your first step: Head to your nearest garden store! Don’t have time for that? Your local grocer likely has a few plants in stock. You can make this a family affair – kids are more likely to eat vegetables if they watch them grow. Plant a few seeds watch your mood blossom.

  1. Spend time with a pet: As a lifelong dog owner, I know stroking those soft ears does wonders for relieving my stress at the end of a long day. For years, we have been training dogs to lead the blind and aid the hearing-impaired, but increasingly we have turned to dogs to assist those with mental health issues as well. Dogs are being trained to help people dealing with PTSD, anxiety and autism, to name a few. However, you don’t need a specially trained pet to reap the benefits. In studies, pets have been repeatedly shown to provide social support. As with gardening, spending time with a pet can drop your cortisol levels. Dogs in particular are good at increasing our social engagement and activity. Taking a dog for a walk almost invariably invites conversation from neighbors you might never have met otherwise.

Your first step: Lace up your shoes and take Max on a walk. Live in a pet-free building? Consider volunteering some time at your local shelter. (Again, take the kids! Many shelters are happy to involve youth as long as parents are there as well.) Both you and the animals there will benefit.

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  • Liz Robbins July 20, 2015 at 1:40 pm

    Excellent advice on all fronts.