Want to reduce stress? Go outside.
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Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts – Rachel Carson
I am an outdoors person. When I am not doing counseling, I am outside. Hiking, biking, kayaking, or snowshoeing are all hobbies I enjoy. Even when I don’t have time to visit my favorite green spaces, at home I sit outside to sip tea and read a book, or take care of our chickens (yes, we have 24 chickens!). So it’s no surprise that on my lunch breaks, I’m often outside.
There is a park by my office that I often walk around at on my hour long lunch break. There are different trails and scattered picnic tables. I love being outside. It seems to reduce stress and renews my focus for the afternoon. And you know what? I’m not the only one. When I pull into the parking lot, it is peppered with cars. There are people sitting in their cars, eating lunch and looking out over the meadow. Some are eating at a picnic table (while also responding to email on their phone). I pass some people in full business attire walking the easy trails.
Why does nature have such a draw for us? Is it simply the Vitamin D from the sun, or is there more to it? Does nature have an impact on our mental health? Absolutely it does.
Impact of Nature on Mental Health
Research has shown that nature increases our overall physical health1,4,5, but what about our mood? Studies are piling up on the impact of the natural world on our mental health. Not only does exposure to nature reduce our stress2,4, but there are even more ways nature has been shown to impact our mental health:
- improves our attention span 4
- restores our focus 4
- reduces stress 2,3
- improves self-esteem 2,5
- improves our mood 2,3,5
- speed up recovery from physical illnesses 4
- makes us less angry 1,3,5
- reduces anxiety 1,3,5
- makes us less depressed 1,3,5
That’s a pretty significant pile of improvements! Want even better news? It also doesn’t seem to matter how actively you are exposed to nature for it to have a positive impact on you. One study looked at patients in a hospital who had a view of a park vs. patients who had a view of a brick wall (a pretty passive way to take in nature, looking out the window). Patients who had a view of a park actually recovered faster than those with a view of a wall2. Even people who have more green space near where they live show better physical and mental health6. So it doesn’t take much to make an improvement on our mentality.
The effects nature are the most significant on people who already struggle with a mental health symptoms2. Even if you don’t struggle with mental health, when you experience a stressful event, or a crisis, looking at pictures of nature can help reduce your stress level more than if you handled it in other ways2.
Why not try it? A few minutes to reduce stress and improve your mood? I’d take that any day. Take a few minutes to watch this video with relaxing nature scenes (or you can watch it for the full hour…up to you! 🙂 ). Measure how you feel before, then check in with how you feel afterwards.
Send your child outside
We all know those days. Your children are inside and getting kind of squirrely. They are coming to you complaining that they are bored, they are messing with each other just to have something to do, or they are starting to get whiny. What is the best course of action? Maybe consider taking them (or sending them) to the great outdoors.
You are not the only one who benefits from going outside. Your child will also. Not only does the outdoors have all of the same effects on children as adults (reduced stress, improved mood, improved self-esteem, improved attention span, etc.), but it also improves academics and allows kids the chance to have creative play1. In his book Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder, Richard Louv states “Environment-based education dramatically improves standardized test scores and grade point averages and develops skills in problem solving, critical thinking, and decision making. Even creativity is stimulated by childhood experiences in nature.”
Think of a baby toy where if you push a button, an elephant pops up. The same thing happens every time. Push the button, then up pops the elephant, push the button…you get it. There is nothing wrong with this, and children can learn from using toys like this, especially when they are young. But is this is the only type of toy kids have access to, they miss out on the creativity and self-regulation of creative play. Toys like dolls, trucks, a ball, (or even the box that the toy came in!) all allow for the child to come up with creative ideas. Maybe today the trucks are all following a straight path, but tomorrow they might be flying in the air over lava. That’s what the outdoors allow your kids to explore. They can come up with creative ideas and scenarios that allow them to create and play.
How to get more nature in your life
I know that not everyone can go to the park on their lunch break. I also know that at times, it can be hard to get outside between the weather, lack of sunlight, or just life’s demands. So here are some ideas to get more nature in your life.
- Set nature scenes as your background or screen saver.
- Save pictures from your favorite natural vacation spot (beach, woods, lake, etc.) on your phone.
- Instead of using a treadmill at the gym, take your exercise outside today.
- Open a window in your house or office that overlooks something natural.
- Instead of meeting up with a friend for lunch, meet up to take a walk outdoors.
- Watch a nature video on YouTube
- Take your kids to the park on Saturday afternoon
- Start a veggie garden in the spring
- Take a 10 minute walk outside at lunch.
- Go to a fall activity with your family (apple picking, corn maze, etc.)
- Attend your child’s sports game.
I’d love to hear from you. How to you get more nature in your life? Also how do you get your kids outside? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below!
- Louv, R. (2008). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Algonquin Books.
- What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis Jo Barton and Jules Pretty Environmental Science & Technology 2010 44 (10), 3947-3955 DOI: 10.1021/es903183r
- Pearson, D. G., & Craig, T. (2014). The great outdoors? Exploring the mental health benefits of natural environments. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1178. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01178
- Green exercise in the UK countryside: Effects on health and psychological well-being, and implications for policy and planning Professor J. Pretty, J. Peacock, R. Hine, M. Sellens, N. South & M. Griffin Journal of Environmental Planning and Management Vol. 50 , Iss. 2,2007
Erica K. Cieri, LCSW is a therapist and trainer at Made to Thrive in Williamsville, NY. She specializes in working with kids, teens and college students dealing with anxiety, behavior problems, tough relationships and difficulty managing their emotions. She collaborates with her clients to develop strategies to manage their current issues, but also to discover long term how to find peace. Erica can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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