I was speaking to a colleague of mine yesterday. She asked if I had any ideas for inspirational thoughts on the monitors at Sanford West Behavioral Health Campus. As the Sanford Marketing Director, my answer to questions of this sort is always, “Yes.” I had been thinking about the mental health benefits of a Michigan fall, particularly the childlike wonder of the season. My answer was, “Shuffling through autumn leaves makes you feel happy. It’s good for anxiety and depression and beauty around every corner enriches your life!”
I am from Florida, but I have a pedigree when it comes to Michigan. I was born in Flint and I went to college in the Upper Peninsula. The one thing I missed about Michigan in all the years I traveled afar, was the changing seasons. Experiencing autumn is a revelation. I think it is healthier, both mentally and physically, to be in Michigan from September to Thanksgiving. And if you will allow me a Great Lakes reference, Michigan is Superior to Florida this time of year. It’s a no tickets needed, come-as-you-are, free show, and as a person in recovery and a mental health advocate I embrace every aspect of the performance.
7 Reasons a Michigan Autumn is Good for Your Mental Health
1. Michigan Autumn Boosts Your Immune System
A UC Berkley Study says the awe we feel from art and nature is beneficial to the body’s defense system. A walk in nature, especially when the surroundings fill you with wonder, reduces pro-inflammatory cytokines. Cytokines fight infection, but sustained high levels of this protein are associated with heart disease, arthritis, and type-2 diabetes. And even if you are inside, looking out the window at a fiery orange maple, it improves your mood and your health! At Sanford Behavioral Health, we take therapy outside whenever possible.
2. Reduces Stress and Depression
When a dappled sun shines through a tunnel of yellow oaks, I defy anyone to feel blue. And looking at beautiful things can reduce cortisol levels (the primary indicator of stress). We have all experienced heightened levels of stress during the pandemic years. But during a Michigan autumn, whether you are driving, horseback riding, biking, walking, or just sitting on a park bench, you are bombarded with beauty. And beauty breeds a cheerier attitude.
3. Encourages Gratefulness and Beauty
When you’re on vacation, in Paris for example, you expect to be amazed. Walk around every street corner and find an Instagram winner. But when your city street is transformed for a season, it is a magical experience. Don’t we need a little magic in our lives? And experiencing gratitude makes people more optimistic about the future. In her article, Gratitude Therapy, Finding Happiness in Recovery/Life, Sanford Founder and addiction therapist Rae Green says, “Positive psychology, the scientific study of strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive, suggests we look first to the things we are grateful for. Because positive thinking is a learned behavior.”
4. Creates a Collective Community
Sanford Behavioral Health’s signature Excursions program incorporates experiential therapy, recreation, creative expression, and other activity-based techniques to restore physical and psychological health. It’s good for one’s mental health to be part of a thriving community. A walk around Reeds Lake in East Grand Rapids, or a short trip to Lake Michigan, and we can witness others enjoying the spoils of fall. The cooler temperatures and pure air make it a great time of year to exercise outdoors.
5. Fosters Self Reflection
Michiganders discover what artists and poets already know – nature’s beauty breeds reflection. Journaling, painting, and writing about an ephemeral outing allows us to relive the experience, increasing positive thinking, problem-solving ability, and creativity.
6. Increases Appetite and Healthy Sleep Patterns
In Michigan fall, the fruits and vegetables are displayed in old-time farmer’s markets and orchards. And they are ripe for the picking. Apple, pumpkin, and squash gathering have an added fitness component. One of the first things I do when apple cider season arrives is to find an orchard with a cider mill. The smell evokes childhood memories and takes me back to a simpler time. Similarly, a brisk walk in the technicolor woods increases appetite and healthy sleep patterns. At Sanford Comprehensive Treatment for Eating Disorders, relearning healthy eating patterns is key to recovery.
7. And Last But Best, Michigan Autumn Inspires Leaf Shuffling!
Remember ironing colored leaves with wax paper and saving them? Do that again. Don’t think about it, just get outside, rake up a pile and jump in them or find a path, kick up a storm, and flood the senses.
Do I miss Florida? I do miss it sometimes. My family and friends are there, and I miss the beach where I have hiked a few hundred miles of isolated oceanfront. I miss collecting shark teeth and the mild winters. But, the early color in some of the trees this year feels like coming home (especially after the grueling mental health challenges of the pandemic).
My unscientific conclusion is that a Michigan autumn, while in recovery or not, brings good ole fashioned joy. And for better mental health and wellness. it is important to take advantage of moments of joy, instead of ignoring them. Walking through crunching leaves can reset feelings of anxiety, anger, or hopelessness. And these moments in God’s bounty are a gift that will serve as a reminder to get out of your head and take the leap to mental health.