Well-being, Inside and Outside: Notes on Environmental Wellness
By Jeannine Moga, MA, MSW, LCSW, Chief Happiness Officer, VETgirl
The idea that human, animal and environmental health are interconnected is not a new one (#OneHealth), and veterinarians have been at the forefront of these conversations for many years. But how does this interconnectedness translate into wellness?
“Environmental wellness” – one of the eight dimensions of wellness — encompasses the idea that our personal wellbeing is actually intimately tied to the wellbeing of the physical spaces we inhabit – including our work spaces, our homes, and our larger community. When we are not healthy and well, chances are good that our spaces are likely unwell, too. As such, we can be good stewards of our environments and our bodies simultaneously, each influencing the health and balance of the other.
What does environmental wellness look like in practical terms?
• Spending more time in nature. A recent study revealed that direct exposure to the natural environment (i.e. “green spaces”) contributes to human health and wellbeing . I’m sure this isn’t surprising to many of you, but the specifics here are interesting: study respondents who got outside for as little as 120 minutes per week reported better overall health and wellbeing than those people who spent less time in nature. That’s less than 20 minutes per day in fresh air, folks. How do busy professionals accomplish this? When weather permits, conduct your staff huddles outside, take patients for a stroll, or take a short walking lunch break.
Too busy at the clinic? Spend a few minutes with your coffee (or other drink of choice) outdoors, or take a quick walk, hike or ride through the nearest green space you can find. Many studies have shown that time in nature can reduce negative rumination, encourage movement, and decrease blood pressure/heart rate/stress cortisol levels. This is why Shinrin Yoku (aka “Forest Bathing”) is a thing – and a pretty cool one, at that.
• Being a mindful steward of natural resources, both at work and at home. All of us can do a little better at taking care of the world we inhabit. Most have heard the dictum Reduce/Reuse/Recycle, right? Thinking about this dictum in micro behaviors can be helpful: turn off running faucets and unnecessary lights; unplug appliances and electronics when they aren’t in use; allow your technology to “sleep” or shut down periodically, which is a great excuse to take a “technology holiday.” If shutting down my computer, television, and cell phone for a few hours – or a few days – per month can save both natural resources and my brain cells, I’m all for it. Even small shifts in daily habits can lead to significant resource savings – and gains in wellbeing — over time.
• Cutting down on excess junk. The endless stream of junk mail and electronic solicitations can clog our minds, our counter space, and our in-boxes. Put an end to it by using the links at https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0262-stopping-unsolicited-mail-phone-calls-and-email. My personal peeve is receiving multiple paper notices (with free envelopes) that my highway tolls have actually been paid. I wish I could say these are the only superfluous notices I receive… alas, they are not. Working toward “paperless” personal and professional practices is a great way to simplify.
• Reducing the use of (and exposure to) environmental toxins and products that have unintended health consequences. There are more options than ever to substitute healthy cleaners and personal products for those that are often loaded with things that are difficult to pronounce and full of junk we probably would rather not breathe, ingest, or otherwise put on our person (or our patients). Keep in mind, though, that just because something is labelled as “natural” does not mean it is good for us, the environment or the animals with whom we share our planet. A great example of this is palm oil, the production of which carries with it some grave concerns about environmental and orangutan health. Be an informed consumer!
• Surrounding yourself with good, natural smells. “Wet dog” is not an aromatherapy candle for good reason: not all “natural” scents are pleasant ones. But there is some science behind the power of scent to trigger positive brain states, and we can use scent to improve wellbeing in both professional and personal spaces. I have frequently used aromatherapy diffusers in the office to both neutralize stink and provide either a calming (lavender oil) or energizing (citrus oil) influence. Because our patients have exquisitely sensitive smellers, we should of course be cautious about the products being used in clinic settings. But scent is an important part of our environmental experience, so using scent to improve human mood and focus can be useful.
As with any of the wellness dimensions, it is the small (and achievable) changes that often carry with them the greatest promise for lasting improvement. Moving forward, think about the little things that might contribute to your sense of well-being in the spaces you inhabit daily, knowing that both the inner and outer spaces matter in the long run.