Greening our mental “meal”

Throughout my career as a clinical psychologist, I’ve attended trainings led by neuroscientist Dr. Dan Siegel, MD, who is well known in the popular media for his books on parenting and mindfulness. I encourage you to check out his current work in collaboration with leaders like Dr. Sara`King and the embodied social justice movement, as well.

I’ve long been fascinated by the “healthy mind platter,” especially as I’ve moved toward a behavioral health consultation model. This framework was introduced by Dr. Siegel and his colleague David Rock around the time that the USDA transitioned from the food pyramid to My Plate, and includes a set of seven empirically-supported activities – sleep time, playtime, time-in, downtime, connecting time, physical time, and focus time, all part of a well-balanced “mental diet” designed to optimize mind/body health.

Research suggests that emphasizing such activities in our regular “mental diet” can strengthen and recharge our brains, consolidate learning, create new neural connections, and integrate complex information – all essential for well-functioning across work, school, and home life domains. To learn more, watch his video (because “Dr. Dan” has always impressed me with his ability to make neuroscience accessible) or, if you’re really intrigued, this research article details their conceptualization.

Because I filter everything through a nature-based lens these days, I began wondering how I might “green” this platter to benefit my own life and those that I serve. And so, with nature, joy, and creativity in mind, here’s my adapted version: The Healthy Mind Flower.

(The sunflower image used in this slideshow was taken from my Seattle-area rooftop garden. Oh, the pleasure a garden can bring. Especially over this past year).

To illustrate how we might ground the Healthy Mind Platter in nature, I’ll share a few personal examples.

Sleep time: I’ve created a green cart next to my bed and incorporate lavender into my bedtime relaxation routine. A good night’s rest – for me, at least 8-9 hours of solid sleep, is crucial. I’ve found that as I age, I need to strengthen my sleep hygiene strategies. And because I’ve written previously about the life-changing impact of a drowsy driver, I’m especially invested in promoting good sleep for others.

Physical time: Our bodies need movement – and our brains benefit, too. Often, I walk, bike, swim, or kayak outdoors – but if circumstances don’t permit, I try to engage in a few gentle yoga poses near a window. I can’t recall when I haven’t spent at least some part of my day outside; caring for a dog (or two) certainly helps!

Focus time: Too many activities in our lives have the unfortunate distinction of either under-stimulating and/or overwhelming us, physically and mentally. Long hours in front of the computer, or lengthy commutes, are painful examples. So tasks like seed starting, weeding, and harvesting in my edible garden are all opportunities for pleasurable, sustained attention, in a soothing environment – which also leads to a sense of mastery and completion. I know birders who keep bird lists, and rose enthusiasts who can lose themselves for hours tending to their shrubs. Find your nature “thing.”

Time in: In our house, I try to incorporate “time in’s” with our tween. I’m not perfect and definitely, sometimes my emotions get the best of me, but I try to remember that our daughter (and her developing brain) benefit when we take time together to cool down, name emotions, and process difficult events. Often, a car ride or a walk to the nearby playground provides the opportunity to work things through.

Similarly, adults also benefit from regular opportunities to pause, check-in (self-reflection), and engage in curious, compassionate awareness (mindfulness). Not surprisingly, given the cognitive science reviewed in Dr. Siegel’s work, I find that my creativity, mood, and productivity are greatly boosted by regular periods of self-reflection (often through writing) as well as episodes of “non-doing,” especially in nature.

Downtime: What have you last wandered, meandered, puttered, or just went “with the flow?” Local parks provide our young family with ample opportunities to explore where a path, our interests, or our dog might take us. I could watch the birds in my tiny backyard for hours. Watching water is equally calming and meditative. Nature provides countless options for “being” without a predefined agenda or goal, even if you have just five spare minutes per day.

Connecting time: Especially now, aren’t many of us hungry for connection? I feel energized when I visit with or seek out other nature lovers, visit local farmers markets, or discover a new green space. Identifying plants, trees, insects, and wildlife is part of the fun – and also helps dispel feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Play time: Some of you have seen the mandalas I’ve created – a mindfulness practice that allows me to play with (and savor) food. And very slowly, I’m exploring multimedia storytelling, inspired by nature and other artists. Sometimes I feel daunted by my lack of training, but experimenting with new techniques, just like growing new varieties in my edible garden, is also a fulfilling adventure.

When we take these seven activities outside, or find ways to engage in nature or in growing food, we flourish on multiple levels. Not only do we realize neuro-cognitive benefits, but we gain physically and as a community. Greater intimacy with nature benefits everyone (including our planet).

You’ll hear more about the Healthy Mind Flower in the coming months, because it’s an important component of the Sow to SAVOR educational program. Remember, it’s never too late to sow seeds of mind/body health. And nature is always available: to inspire, nourish, and support positive change.

When have you last stood still in a green space? Listen, feel, observe.

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