Sunshine, Mental Health and Choosing Not To Be A Forest Ranger

Long beach

(This is Playa Sámara on a typical Tuesday.)

I have been in Sámara for 16 days.  It has been brilliantly sunny every single day.  There are several very real psychiatric problems that respond positively to sunlight.  Take depression for example.  Many of the meds doctors dole out are designed to keep seratonin in your body by preventing its re-uptake (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors or SSRI’s such as Prozac and Paxil).  Among many scientific studies, Jeffrey Rossman writes in his book Mind Body Mood Solution that exposure to sunlight produces seratonin in your body.  Seratonin increases your feelings of well-being.  It lifts depression.  In an article the author wrote for Women’s Health, Rossman notes that exposure to sunlight lifts depression in just a week compared to antidepressants that take up to four to six weeks to become effective.

We are part of nature.  We are meant to be outside.  Costa Ricans seem to understand this.  Their homes are built with the central living area, the kitchen, outside.  They sleep with the windows open and screen to protect them from insects (and often bars to protect them from intruders).  The restaurants are open-air with fans above.  Even the grocery stores are wide open until night time when iron gates close off the front.  The overall effect is anyone who lives here is in tune with the sunlight.  Breakfast is prepared a little bit after sunrise and dinner is enjoyed 12 hours later around sunset, all outside.

Getting the right amount of sunshine at the right time is not a problem here.  Since Costa Rica is so close to the equator, the days are roughly as long as the nights.

But in places like Denver where the days are short in the winter and often too cold to go outside, many shrinks recommend light boxes.  These boxes are popular in Canada where they are made.  They provide full spectrum light.  You sit in front of the light while working or reading for about an hour.  The light boxes take the place of being outside in the sunlight.  The full spectrum light enters your retina and your brain produces serotonin.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the overall effect of being outside when the sun rises and sets impacts your circadian rhythm so that your body knows when to wake up and when to go to sleep.  For depressed people, sleep problems are common.  So getting outside would not only increase serotonin and one’s sense of well-being, but it would help regulate the sleep cycle.  Depression is awful and it can make people stay awake all night where they end up looking at the light from a computer screen  further  disrupting the sleep cycle with the unnatural light, causing the person to be exhausted the next day and more depressed.

In the US, most people spend most of their time indoors.  Working inside an office building, especially where there is no window, is literally depressing!

While I was writing this, I remembered that when I was little, I wanted to be a forest ranger.  I held on to this dream up until college.  And then someone said to me, “Being a forest ranger is just law enforcement.”  Well that killed my dream.  I did not want to be in law enforcement.  (Some of you who know me are chuckling right now.)  I was picturing a policeman walking through the forest writing tickets for fishing without a license.  I had something more in mind that involved communing with nature and spotting endangered wildlife.

Looking back, I gave up that dream of being a forest ranger too quickly.  So what if part of it involved law enforcement?  I would have spent my entire working day outside, walking, or maybe riding a horse as my acquaintance does, through wilderness areas in Colorado, where State publications claim we have 300 days of sunshine a year.  The sun would certainly stave off the blues and be good for my sleep cycle.  Also, as I mentioned in two previous posts, a study has proved that finding beauty in nature increases your sense of well-being.  As a forest ranger, imagine getting to see the wildflowers all the time and the hummingbirds feeding from flowers not red plastic containers from the hardware store.   That’s a big dose of well-being!

The physical surroundings of my job have always been important to me.  I have opted for a small office with a view of the mountains over a large office with nicer furnishings.  I arranged my office furniture at my first job so I could see a small slice of the mountains even though it made the office look ridiculous.  So writing this post I’m just thinking, wow, a forest ranger would have the best physical  surroundings ever, and now there’s evidence that it would have improved my health.

I cannot go back and be a forest ranger.  But I can make it a point to get lots of sun and pay attention when I’m outside–find the natural beauty that is all around.  As a bonus, I will keep the blues at bay, increase my sense of well-being and sleep well.  I knew when we came as a family at Christmas time to Costa Rica that I loved it, I just did not understand why.  I think the answer is beginning to come to me.  The physical surroundings are making me happy.


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