Inspiration Lifestyle

Social Prescribing | 6 Ways to Boost Wellbeing

Before you write this article off as another phony list of cure-alls, hear me out.

For twelve years, I’ve had endometriosis. Through seven surgeries and seemingly every diet, exercise plan, or miracle drug out there, I’ve listened politely as healthy folks promise I’ll be cured by some latest trend.

I’m not here to do that.

Many of us have diseases that will never go away, regardless of how much coconut oil we ingest or how many times we meditate per day. So instead of proclaiming that apple cider vinegar (which I love) will cure an autoimmune disease (it won’t), I’ve researched ways people thrive in spite of disease, free of the expectation of being cured. I know first-hand that non-medical therapies like Qi Gong and art have made my life brighter and less dominated by pain. And spending the past two years navigating menopause under thirty, I’m now sure of one thing: non-medical therapies have a home in our wellness regimens.

But don’t just take my word for it. Instead, look to the emerging data, NHS, and hosts of doctors backing the idea up. Modern medicine needs to do better if we hope to make all lives worth living – no matter how low on spoons we may be. The budding solution? Social prescribing.

Social prescribing: a rundown

Step aside yogis, yoghurt fanatics, and paleo dieters proclaiming you’ve got the cure. There’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that social prescriptions are (quite literally) just what the doctor ordered for a richer life.

Having gained traction in recent years as a supplement to standard care, social prescribing is when doctors prescribe events, activities, hobbies, or routines that foster wellbeing. What separates these from that eye-roll-worthy stranger on Instagram suggesting yoghurt could fix your endometriosis (anyone?) is that social prescribing isn’t seen as a cure, but as a life-improving supplement. 

Who’s it for?

Doctors are beginning to acknowledge that something must be done to alleviate the weight of a chronic disease or chemical imbalance, and the NHS has developed a guideline for who may be positively impacted by social prescribing, such as people…

  • “With one or more long-term conditions
  • “Who need support with their mental health
  • “Who are lonely or isolated, and
  • “Who have complex social needs which affect their wellbeing.”

A diagnosis with no known cure can leave us feeling robbed. But as I enter the best years of my life thanks to implementing the very things doctors have begun prescribing, I’m realising that these tools open us up to possibility despite our illnesses. 

But how does it work?

A report from the Rotherham Social Prescribing Service, based on data from over twenty organisations, shows that social prescribing causes patients to return to their general practitioners less often, and to report an overall greater sense of wellbeing and deepened happiness.

This could be because, at their core, all social prescriptions revolve around connecting us to others or to nature. We evolved as animals participating in the natural world, and those needs are still present – no matter what our cubicle may say. In this digital world and the age of glorified overtime, our connections to the earth and one another have been cast aside as secondary. But getting outside, letting go of our phones, and getting to know new people helps make us happier and healthier.

While the thought of needing to be prescribed time outdoors is depressing, the good news is that data shows these prescriptions work.

And while different social prescriptions yield different results, they all have one common focus: a brighter quality of life.

What types of social prescriptions are there?

Physical activity

Perhaps the best-known social prescription, physical activity includes hitting the gym, signing up for a sport, going to yoga, or taking an after-dinner stroll around your neighbourhood. When engaged in and prescribed by a doctor, it’s adaptable to your ability level, and is there to bring you more joy.

Several years ago, endometriosis made it hard to walk. At that time, my physical activity was limited to adapted stretches and walking at least part way to dinner down the street with my husband’s support. Even that amount of activity, however, empowered me to keep going and understanding my own body.

When doctors prescribe physical activity, it comes in a variety of activities depending on their patients’ ability and interests, such as exercise regimens, dance classes, or a walking group

👉 Conditions it can help with

Exercise of any kind can help with mild to moderate depression and anxiety, even when the physical activity isn’t what you might traditionally call exercise. Karmel Choi, who co-authored this study on exercise and happiness, stated that cardio from putting away laundry and doing housework is just as good at increasing blood flow and bolstering happiness.

But it’s not just mental health that activity can help with: in moderation and done with your body’s limits in mind, exercise can help autoimmune diseases by reducing inflammation. The trick is going slow to avoid overdoing it. It’s taken me years to figure out how not to trigger a flare-up, but in recent years I’ve realized the key is going slower than you think is necessary, listening carefully to your body, and being okay with stopping a workout early if need be.

Finally, for those of you with debilitating cramps, consider cardio. Exercise is often the last thing on our minds during cramps, but getting your blood pumping can help curb the pain. To make it better, get creative with your cardio; try dancing, hula-hooping, or walking somewhere beautiful.

💡 Tips

Go slow. It took me a year and a half of starting and stopping after my most recent surgery to understand how slowly I needed to go if I hoped to see progress. You’ll start with less intensity than you’d like, but your body will feel the difference in the long run.

Do something you enjoy! Find any way to get active that speaks to you: picking up trash in your neighbourhood, joining a local volleyball league, or trying fun dance workout videos like these are all wonderful ways to get moving.

Doctors have begun prescribing something called a Green Gymoutdoor activities with an environmental bent, like planting trees or establishing holding ponds. Right now they only exist in the UK, but look online for similar ways to work with your hands outside, regardless of the country you live in.

Hobbies

It seems like we’ve forgotten the art of doing something without expecting a monetary return. Nowadays, overtime, paychecks, and insomnia serve as measurements for our worth. Because of this, we’ve denied ourselves hobbies, things that drive us for the sheer joy of doing them, like singing lessons or birdwatching.

👉 Conditions it can help with

Just as with physical activity, hobbies and activities can help alleviate mental health conditions. By finding a task to participate in, people tend to lead happier and more rounded lives.

But more than that, hobbies are linked to stress relief, and because of that, are seen as ways to help reduce blood pressure or cortisol in the body. By taking time to do something you love every week, for yourself only, you surrender to the enjoyment of the task at hand.

Learning to oil paint was a critical part of overcoming the months I spent struggling to walk, and the four surgeries that followed. By oil painting, I was creating worlds and scenarios unrelated to my illness, releasing some of the stress of my life and diving into it for the pure pleasure of creating. For folks with chronic illnesses and depression, the community aspect of hobbies can be life-saving, as it was with this group in Newcastle.

💡 Tips

If you’re looking to build community with people in your situation, ask your doctor about activity groups particular to your illness.

Try contacting your local community centre or searching online to find free groups where you can learn new activities, skills, and hobbies.

Remember that the internet is a powerful tool! Look up how-to’s for everything from embroidery to the moonwalk. Join an internet forum like Ravelry for your hobby and share with others online what you’re doing.

Museums

The latest in social prescribing, a trip to the museum under doctors orders may draw furrowed brows at first glance, but it holds a lot of promise. Doctors and social workers in Canada can officially sign prescriptions for attending the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto – and the research coming out may just influence other countries to follow suit.

👉 Conditions it can help with

Museum visits are like other social prescriptions in that they’re geared to help with depression and other mental health conditions. By getting out and learning about something new, patients are given the chance to think more expansively in their daily life.

According to Hélène Boyer, vice president of Médecins francophones du Canada (MdFC), the hormones released by experiencing art can help alleviate the pains of cancer, diabetes, and chronic illness, at least for the day. In my own experience, observing art has helped me ignore my aches on days when I really needed to – like my twenty-sixth birthday, which I spent entirely in pain, but enjoying most of it as I ambled through a museum with my husband.

Museum prescriptions are also recommended for our aging populations.

💡 Tips

It seems that only Canada has begun prescribing (and therefore waiving admission for) museum trips. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t take matters into your own hands! Most museums in major cities and towns offer a free day monthly. Look up “free museum days” in your area to see what’s available to you.

Some cities have free museums – such as London, which boasts twenty-three major museums that are always free. Look into your own city to see if you’re in luck. You can also check the offerings at your local institutions; many libraries have local art on display, and some even offer access to major museums for free.

Look into similar opportunities in your area to attend. If there are no free museums in your town, look into monthly art hops or First Friday events, where you can scope out works from local artists on display for free.

Forest bathing   

Simultaneously innovative and old as time, forest bathing is a unique prescription doctors have begun doling out for patients in need. Originating in Japan, it has recently caught on in England as the latest thing to prescribe patients.

In city living and through our typical work days, most of us have lost the connection to nature that evokes deep peace within us: that sense of wonder that peers out from the trees when we’re camping or hiking. That’s because, according to one study, people in the US spend 87% of their time indoors – and it’s creating a void. David Abram addresses this in his piece exploring our collective human need to return to mindfulness, to a sense of identity through nature, and to find a path to our wholeness.

Different from a typical hike, forest bathing is less about a destination and more about the experience of the forest sans phones or technology to guide us. Free of an objective or final vista, a good session of forest bathing involves you spending a few hours by yourself, surrounded by nature and engaging all your senses, even if you don’t go beyond a small area.

👉 Conditions it can help with

In one study, forest bathing was shown to lower cortisol and blood pressure, as well as nerve activity, boding well for those of us with chronic pain conditions and heart conditions.

It was also found to significantly decrease hostility and depression, meaning it can also be an excellent tool for combatting mental health conditions. 

💡 Tips

With forest bathing, remember the goal isn’t a rigorous hike or exercise. It’s about taking part in natural spaces, breathing clean air, and breaking free of our normal, isolated, and sterile environments. Stay within your ability level and go somewhere pleasant, just to be in nature.

If you’d rather be in a group when you forest bathe, consider signing up for a group with the RSPB – but don’t feel like you need to pay money to go outside and enjoy nature. Just head on out to a nearby forest and start experiencing the pleasure and quiet of the outdoors.

Leave your phone behind. Forest bathing isn’t about live-tweeting the experience to your followers; it’s about connecting to that moment, and to yourself.

Don’t wait for a doctor’s note to get on out there! Often a forest is just a short drive or train ride away, and can make a world of difference to your wellbeing.

Organic gardening

If nature brings you joy and forest bathing alone isn’t cutting it, consider gardening. Offering a similar host of health benefits, people are increasingly suggesting you get out and garden to reap major rewards (and veg). 

👉 Conditions it can help with

Gardening, when done organically, is brimming with health benefits. And it starts with the soil. Research has come out showing that the good bacteria in soil boosts your immune system – a boon for those of us with autoimmune conditions.

Beyond that, as gardening is another innovative form of cardio, it is good for your health in the same way that light exercise is, and has been shown to help people eat more vegetables.

💡 Tips

If your mobility is limited, there are loads of assisting tools to make gardening accessible.

Even without a yard, container gardening, sprouting wheatgrass, or caring for an indoor garden can help you feel better connected to your plants, nature, and your own mindfulness. 

Volunteering

By taking part in something broader than yourself, you become part of a community and see how capable you are. Having an illness or disease can be isolating. Often, it leaves us exclusively on the receiving end of goodwill and aid. By volunteering, you can find meaning in giving to the best of your ability – and it is so beneficial to health that even the Mayo Clinic recommends it for patients from all walks of life.

👉 Conditions it can help with

Volunteering has been shown to reduce depression, especially with aging populations that are more likely to face isolation and loneliness. It also is great for making connections at all ages, helping with mental agility, and keeping people engaged with their communities.

💡 Tips

Find a group you care about. Rather than heading into the first volunteer opportunity that crops up, consider your passions: are you enthusiastic about the environment? A member of the LGBTQ community? Benefitted from sex education as a teen? Dive into something that gives you a sense of purpose and give it your all as a volunteer.

Think creatively about what it means to volunteer in the first place. Being bedridden doesn’t mean you have to be uninvolved. I used to volunteer from my bed, ensconced in a heating pad, contributing my skills as a teacher helping a zero-waste nonprofit create curricula. What is it you’re good at? How can you offer that without taxing yourself?

Communicate your needs with volunteer organizers, and don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself. The folks organising the program care about their cause and are more than happy to ensure that anybody who wants to help can help.

Group learning

Group learning is an excellent opportunity to learn something new, socialize, and keep your mind fresh. As a social prescription, it doesn’t have to be a formal university experience, but can be creative, like learning how to bake or develop your own photography.

👉 Conditions it can help with

Like the rest of the social prescriptions, group learning is a tool for helping manage various mental health conditions as it gets individuals out of their homes, moving, and interacting with new people. And like volunteering, it’s commonly prescribed to seniors as it helps people feel young and keep their minds limber. In fact, seniors in one study were 2.6 times less likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s when they kept up with learning new things and challenging themselves mentally. That statistic alone is enough to keep me learning! 

💡 Tips

Be brave! Learn something you’ve always wanted to, especially if it has nothing to do with your career and is solely for your pleasure.

Try a class that could help you learn a new hobby, so you have something to do without the structure of a learning environment down the road.

Search for classes offered by community centres and local organisations, and see what’s right for you. Libraries and rec centres often have free or near-free learning opportunities on a variety of topics.

Social prescribing works

Don’t think you have to wait for a doctor to start engaging in new activities. At the root of these experiences are a love of nature and social connection. Think about ways you can incorporate both of those into your daily life, whether that’s through a meet-up near you, or just by wandering into the forest and leaving your phone behind.

Things like forest bathing won’t necessarily cure our endometriosis or Lyme disease. What they can do, however, is pour meaning, peace, and purpose into your life despite the obstacles your illness has thrown your way.

Have you tried any of these? What works best for you? I’d love to hear thoughts from fellow spoonies in the Ethical.net community!

Featured image by Shutterstock

Author

Nikita has a master's in creative nonfiction and loves to explore the intersections of queerness, fashion, illness, and sustainability; when not writing, she can be found biking, singing karaoke, or making bagels from scratch. She lives in her RV around Oakland, California.

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