I’m a big fan of spending time in nature. It’s one of the reasons I created this blog. Nothing in nature is accidental; even when it looks messy, there is a rhythm and purpose for each life form, a rhyme and a reason to each part of the life cycle. We are one life form of many, and if we want to survive as a species, this is something we need to remember en masse.
I grew up in a rural area, with free rein to play outdoors until the sun went down. I have always felt most myself and most at home in nature. In 1997, I took a break from the world of entertainment journalism and traveled from Toronto to Banff, where I spent a week exploring the alpine backcountry on horseback. I remember arriving at my hotel in Banff, looking out at a stretch of enormous pines and spruce while I wondered why in the hell I’d decided to live in Toronto. I fantasized about moving to the country. As an ambitious, type-A creative, though, that didn’t seem practical. My work at the time relied on in-person interviews and meetings. Yet when I look back on that moment, I realize my soul was trying to guide me to a saner lifestyle.
Today, I know first-hand the healing power of nature. I regularly experience every one of these benefits, and one of my strongest desires is to share the power of nature with other people who are experiencing Nature Deficit Disorder.
In nature, the myth of human exceptionalism is stripped away and shown to be a false construct. The stillness in nature resonates with a part of us that seeks quietude. At some cellular level, we remember that yes, we are part of nature, too. We share carbon and electrical impulses with all forms of life, from towering pine trees to the tiniest algae on the ocean floor. In nature, we are to do or be anything other than what we are at our essence: One life form among many.
Nature helps to heal depression and anxiety
When we spend time mostly indoors, we begin thinking looping thoughts—ruminating—about regrets in the past or worries about the future. This is why learning to observe our thoughts (and separate them from our feelings or physical sensations) is so important in emotional healing. Getting into nature is also essential.
In study after study after study, researchers found that spending time in nature helped to interrupt the pattern of rumination and improve mood. One theory posits that nature provides ample opportunities to experience awe, and awe, quite simply, stops the mind. Awe gives us a sense of perspective—imagine standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon, or deep in an ancient forest—and it creates space for wonder.
Research from Stanford University showed that people who spent 90 minutes walking outdoors showed lower levels of activity in a part of the brain associated with depression. The effects are real, measurable and repeatable. And those from Chiba University in Japan found that even 15 minutes of walking in the forest lowered cortisol levels (stress hormone) by 16% and blood pressure by 2%.
Further, a long-term study of urban dwellers in the UK (and many subsequent studies around the world) found that people who had access to nature not only had better physical health, but also they had lower levels of “mood disorders” than those who lived surrounded by blocks of cement, steel and glass.
Nature slows us down
We humans are not meant to be always-on. We need rest, both physical and mental, yet with ever-more devices and apps to keep us busy, we often don’t give our brains and bodies the break they need to function optimally. In other words, being in nature slows us down to the pace of all life, rather than the human-created pace we mistake for “normal.”
Slowing down itself has multiple benefits. We’re able to savour each moment. Our communication improves, as do our relationships. When we slow down, our memory improves. Slowing down is better for our health, because we’re not sending cortisol flooding through our bodies. And last but far from least, slowing down allows us to notice our thoughts and question whether we should believe them. (Believing all our thoughts is a fast-track to depression and anxiety.)
Systemic societal problems also have their roots our collective obsession with doing more and being more. We often take mental shortcuts to save our cognitive energy, and frequently those shortcuts contain incorrect information. Racism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism and classism all happen when many (many many) people make assumptions (i.e., believe their thoughts) about a particular person. When we slow down, we’re able to see the world—including other humans—more clearly. We can see individuals for who they are, rather than labeling and judging them based on first impression.
We humans often think that by being busy, doing lots of stuff, covering lots of territory, we’re living life to the fullest. YOLO! Yet when we’ve got a million things going on, and we don’t give ourselves breathing space, there’s only so much depth we can put into any one of our pursuits (or relationships). By selecting what’s most important to us, we can focus on those interests more deeply.
Slowing down and living deliberately really comes down to this: Choosing what will matter to us at the end of our lives.
Nature boosts creativity and cognition
In a study at the University of Kansas, researchers gave creative-thinking tests to a group of 60 people about to embark on a multi-day hike in nature. They gave the same test to 60 others who had been hiking and camping for four days. The ones who had already been immersed in nature for several days scored 50% higher on measures of creative thinking.
Lead researcher Ruth Ann Atchley told the Huffington Post, “Nature is a place where our mind can rest, relax and let down those threat responses,” she said. “Therefore, we have resources left over — to be creative, to be imaginative, to problem solve — that allow us to be better, happier people who engage in a more productive way with others.”
Similarly, a study by Stanford University showed that people were more creative while walking than while sitting. So walking in nature has a double benefit for creativity.
In the 2016 National Geographic article “Call of the Wild: This is Your Brain on Nature” (paywall), Florence William wrote, “When we slow down, stop the busywork and take in beautiful natural surroundings, not only do we feel restored, but our mental performance improves, too.”
Time and again, I’ve experienced the creative benefits of nature firsthand. When I have a creative block, I go for a long, undirected walk in nature, and almost invariably, a solution arises in my mind. It’s not that I ponder the problem as I walk. It’s more than when our attention isn’t focused, our subconscious minds can bubble up all kinds of ideas.
Nature makes us kinder and more generous
It’s a bit ironic that spending time away from the human-created world can make us more prosocial. Yet when we slow down, research shows, we become kinder, more compassionate and more generous.
According to that study, people who were able to appreciate natural beauty were more likely to feel compassion for and help others. Interestingly, the more awe-inspiring the nature, the greater the impact on an individual’s willingness to be helpful and generous. So even if you’re feeling snarky and selfish (two traits with which I am well-acquainted, but which don’t feel good), spending some time in the forest, or even a big park, can open your heart back up a bit.
When we experience awe in nature—say, gazing at the Milky Way on a summer evening, or looking hundreds of feet up at towering redwood trees—we implicitly understand our insignificance in the big picture. We see that all of nature is interconnected, and we are just one part of it—no more or less than a fleeting cherry blossom. That feeling, according to a study by the University of California Irvine, inspires people to be more generous to others around them.
Kindness itself has multiple mental health benefits, something I discovered by accident.
A breathing meditation to connect with nature
You can use this practice in a forest, a park, or even with a plant at home.
Look at the tree or plant without putting a label on it. Try to see it fully.
Breathing in, receive the gift of oxygen that this forest, tree or plant offers us freely.
Breathing out, offer the gift of carbon dioxide for the forest, tree or plant.
Do this for a few cycles and see if you feel a deeper connection with that particular nature.
At our core, we are carbon-based, electrical life forms, as are all species in nature. It can be easy to forget that when we’re in our eighth meeting of the day on the 22nd floor of a skyscraper, or cranking out our tenth rep on a Nautilus machine at the gym. And the more days we spend simply pushing through, the more our well-being, including mental health, suffers.
By breaking the pattern of busyness and urban immersion, we can not only become happier and healthier, but also we become better human beings.
image credit: Juan Davila via Unsplash
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I really love this post, Sarah! I so need to walk outside everyday. And my mantra is “walk and write.” First the walk then write. I need that space to think, ruminate, meander, and breathe.
Thanks so much, Beth. Keep walking! (And writing!)