A few years ago, I found myself in somewhat of a “funk.” Multiple stressors had piled up, one on top of the other, and left me feeling frazzled, anxious, and out of steam. It just so happened that around the same time, my spouse and I decided to start taking daily walks at night.
This provided us time to unwind, talk, and enjoy nature.
After a while, I started noticing a difference in my mood. When we were outside, I felt that my brain slowed down. I took the time to notice the trees, the birds, the flowers, and I stopped feeling so anxious and on edge.
It turns out, I’m not alone.
Researchers across the globe are finding time spent in nature can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, and can uplift our mood. In fact, spending time outside has been shown to reduce the body’s production of cortisol, a well-known stress hormone, and even to lower blood pressure, slow cognitive decline, and boost immunity. A study conducted at Stanford found walking in nature had the power to reduce activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex—a region associated with rumination, worry, and depression.
The stimuli present in nature (the sounds of water, the birds chirping, and the wind in the trees) seem to take us outside of ourselves. We begin to focus on more than just our own problems and worries, and our outlook becomes less negative overall.
The calming effect of nature is so pronounced that in Japan there is a practice known as “forest bathing.” Contrary to how it sounds, there is no particular “bathing” involved— rather, forest bathing involves walking or sitting in a forest or green space, and simply soaking in the surroundings with all five senses.
The effects are amazing. Forest bathing is associated with not only decreased blood pressure, cortisol, and stress levels, but also increased dopamine (a “feel-good” chemical in the brain), focus, and even a boost in the body’s production of cancer-fighting cells.
So how do we take advantage of the many benefits nature has to offer?
Here are some ideas .
Move indoor activities outside, and adapt others.
Maybe you like to read a good book on the weekends. What would it be like to take a lawn chair outside, maybe a couple pillows, and read in the beauty of daylight? (Tip: don’t forget your sunscreen!) Or perhaps you exercise each morning before work. Adapt your exercise to the outdoors. Your lungs will thank you for the fresh air, and you might have fun watching the squirrels and birds react to your activity.
If you drive to work each day, but are close enough to walk or bike, give those forms of transportation a try. They will provide an easy way to get exercise, and also connect you to nature on your way to your job. Once at your job, see if there is a space to take lunch outside. Rather than spending time at your desk or on the computer, this will give both your eyes and your brain a much-needed break.
Take up new hobbies
Maybe you always wanted to try gardening, but weren’t sure you could do it. With the weather becoming more beautiful every day, there’s no better time to start than now. Many local stores have expert staff who are willing to listen to your goals and help you pick out the best plants for your space.
Hiking and camping are great ways to spend time in nature. This area has several beautiful parks that are within a day’s drive. And don’t be intimidated: even a leisurely walk through a state park, rather than a tough hike, can provide the wonderful benefits nature has to offer.
Nature photography is a great way to get outdoors and observe wildlife and greenery, all while creating something beautiful to keep. Many cell phones come with better and better built-in cameras these days, making even the most camera-illiterate of us look like professional photographers.
Bring the outdoors in
Studies show that even investing in a houseplant or two can bring about excellent benefits for your mental health. The very act of seeing greenery around you sets off a calming effect in your brain, as do nature sounds. Playing sounds of birds chirping, rain falling, or ocean waves has the ability to lower blood pressure and reduce stress. I personally find nothing more relaxing than the steady sound of rainfall or the ocean. (Bonus: I get to pretend I’m at the beach!)
To sum up, one of the most powerful tools we can use to feel relaxed and calm is right around us (or within a short drive). Nature truly offers some of the best medicine, and all we have to do is reach out for it.
For more information, please contact Two Roads Wellness Clinic at firstname.lastname@example.org
(217) 531-4101 in Champaign and (217) 651-6801 in Danville.