“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature–the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
Have you ever taken a walk in nature and felt calm, peaceful and clear minded? When I was having almost daily panic attacks, riddled with constant fear, worry and dread the only place I could find any relief was in the woods. I quickly found that when I was hiking, sitting on a park bench or simply staring up at the sky I felt calm, for the first time in years. I now spend at least 30 minutes a day in nature and have become an avid hiker, trail runner, backpacker and all around nature addict. Along with exercise, whole foods diet, mindfulness and therapy, I haven’t had a panic attack in years. I like to think of my nature time as my ‘happy pill”, or prescription for peace. Many people feel good after spending time outdoors and research is confirming the healing power of nature.
Mental Health Benefits of Nature:
- Eases Depression
- Improves Focus
- Improves Sleep Quality
- Reduces Anxiety Symptoms
- Increases Creativity
- Decreases Stress
A Stanford University Study found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to participants who walked in a high-traffic urban setting, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression.
We know that being immersed in nature can lift our moods and calm our spirit. But, you don’t have to be deep in the woods or at a park; you can benefit from looking out a window at nature, looking at pictures or even nature videos according to a study published in the Environmental Science & Technology journal.
Ok, we know being outside, in nature is good for us, so how can I fit that into my already busy schedule? Here are my top five tips for getting outside in nature for at least 30 minutes a day.
1. Try Shinrin Yoku
The term Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing) was coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries in 1982. It can be defined as making contact with and taking in the atmosphere of the forest: a process intended to improve an individual’s state of mental and physical relaxation.
You can practice forest bathing by finding some trees and simply sitting among them, or you can set up a hammock for even more relaxation. Check out local parks, conservatories, nature centers or state parks.
2. Take a Hike
Skip your gym or indoor workout and combine the mental health benefits of nature with the benefits of exercise by taking a hike. According to the American Hiking Society, “Countless studies and research have consistently shown that regular exercise not only improves our overall health and fitness, but lengthens and improves the quality of our lives.
Regular physical activity substantially reduces the risk of dying of coronary heart disease, and decreases the risk for colon cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure. It also helps to control weight; contributes to healthy bones, muscles, and joints; helps to relieve the pain of arthritis; reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression; and is associated with fewer hospitalizations and physician visits.
Walking is one of the lowest impact sports around. This means that while you derive all the cardiovascular benefits of other aerobic activities, you do so with a minimum of stress, strain and pounding to your body. ”
New to hiking, or need a buddy? Check out local hiking meet ups, or join your local Sierra Club Chapter.
3. Get Some Sun
Getting adequate vitamin D and sunlight is important in maintaining good sleep patterns, mood enhancement, blood pressure and depression symptoms. However, too much sun exposure can be harmful to your skin and has been linked to skin cancer. Some studies link sunlight to having more energy and can even reduce the need for pain medication!
You can enjoy the powerful benefits of vitamin D from the sun and stay safe. First when possible, limit exposure to the sun during the peak hours of 10am and 4pm and during that time wear protective clothing and sunscreen (sunscreen blocks the UVB rays that cause sunburn and also that help the skin absorb vitamin D). Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to let your skin soak up the sun without sunscreen for at least 15 minutes once or twice a day.
Try taking morning and evening walks around your neighborhood. You can even increase your sun intake by sitting close to windows where light is shining in or by sitting outside for dinner or reading a book on your front porch/deck. Most people need an average of 30 minutes of sunlight a day and breaking it up into chunks could work better for your schedule.
4. Have a Picnic
Enjoying a picnic outdoors with beautiful scenery can be a very enjoyable way to spend more time outdoors. I like eating outside at least one meal a day when the weather is nice. You can even boost the mood enhancing effects of the outdoors by eating a healthy, whole foods meal, which will only make your body feel and operate better.
Putting together a reusable picnic set is not only good for the environment, but can also make having picnics easier when you have a “basket” all set up and ready to go. Make sure to include reusable plates, cups, cutlery, napkins and a bottle opener (if you enjoy wine or other beverages). The best picnic foods are easy to eat and don’t require heat or ice. ideas include: salads and slaws, antipasto, hummus and veggies, sandwiches or wraps, fruit, noodle dishes or you can always get carry out if you are running short on time.
5. Try Nature Photography
Nature photography is a great way to increase outdoor time and get your creative juices flowing. You can simply use your phone camera or a fancy DSL. Challenging yourself to take different and unique nature photos, could increase your activity levels (walking or hiking to get that “perfect shot”) and could inspire you to explore new places in your city.
Examples of nature photography include; tress, landscapes, clouds, animals, flowers and plants, insects, bodies of water, rock formations, mountains, sunsets and sunrises etc. Get out there and find the artist in you, it could improve your mood while you are at it!
If you are motivated by challenges, you could try the Rewild Your Life Challenge. The goal is to spend 30 minutes outdoors a day for 30 consecutive days. The challenge is based on the previously mentioned research that shows the mental health benefits of nature. Joining the challenge costs $12 and you will receive an activity to try everyday and a guidebook to help you “rewind your life”.
Contact us at Bridge Counseling and Wellness to learn more, or to schedule an outdoor or walk and talk therapy appointment!
Jennifer Owens, LCSW, CPT, LMT is co-founder, wellness director and therapist with Bridge Counseling and Wellness. Jennifer specializes in the holistic treatment of anxiety; OCD, PTSD, panic, phobias, relationship anxiety, worry and fear, general anxiety and stress management.