Nature Can Help Relieve Stress

“We need the tonic of wildness…”

Henry David Thoreau

On an average day, how much time do you spend outside? Some days, I imagine, it’s those brief moments when you’re running from your house to the car, and then from the car to work, the store, etc.  And when we’re on the move, our concentration focused on our destination, there’s no room for mindfully soaking in our natural surroundings: the sunshine, the breeze, the chipmunk scurrying up a nearby tree.  There’s a whole big, beautiful world out there, and most of us are ignoring it in favor of the smartphone in our hands.

The idea of immersing oneself in nature is a romantic thought, touted by transcendentalists like Thoreau and Emerson, and poets like Wordsworth and Robert Frost.  They knew that something happens to a person who chooses to spend quality time in their natural surroundings, and now, years later, science backs up their conjectures: spending time outside truly medicine for the mind.  (And, if you’re hiking or running outside, for the body as well.)

David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, discovered that 22 of his students performed 50% better on creative problem-solving tasks after they spend three days backpacking in the Utah wilderness.

“On the third day my senses recalibrate- I smell things and hear things I didn’t before.  I’m more in tune with nature.  If you can have the experience of being in the moment for two or three days, it seems to produce a difference in qualitative thinking.”

One doesn’t have to go backpacking in Utah to achieve the therapeutic effects of spending time outdoors.  One study found that just one short walk in nature eased symptoms of depression. It wasn’t just a walk outside: walkers who strolled through a natural environment reaped greater psychological benefits than walkers who strolled through urban environments.

Researchers continue to examine why it is that spending time in nature is restorative.  Study after study tells us that spending time in a natural environment decreases stress, improves concentration, boosts mental energy, and makes us feel happy.  If you want to find a foolproof way to relieve stress, go outside.

Now, if you’re not used to making “outside time” a priority, the thought of fitting it into your busy schedule might seem daunting.

Here are some easy ways to commune with nature on a regular basis

  • Take your workout outside.  This may require buying some weather-proof gear, but exercising outside is a surefire way to reap the benefits of physical activity AND the natural world.

  • Make weekend trips into nature a priority: research parks and outdoor activities close to home.  Instead of spending Saturday at home binge-watching Netflix shows, go hiking or canoeing.  Have a picnic in the park.  Go snow-shoeing or cross-country skiing.

  • Commit to taking a 20-minute walk outside every day, no matter the weather.  Go during your lunch break or after dinner.  Pay attention to your surroundings while you’re out:  listen to the birds, the crickets, the leave rustling in the wind.

  • Are you creative?  Take it outside.  Collect leaves, hunt for unique stones and rocks, go bird watching.  Painting and nature photography are two wonderful ways to get in touch with nature.

  • Get a bike.  Short jaunts to the store can be done on a bicycle instead of a car.  It’s a good way to get fit and to breathe in that fresh outdoor air.

Natural light, fresh air, plenty of Vitamin D, the absence of digital distractions: It sounds pretty peaceful, right?  Change your life for the better. Get outside!