As the warm weather slowly arrives, I’m spending much more time outdoors – and noticing that my mood improves with every hour spent walking, biking or just hanging out in the yard with friends or family.
It turns out that sunlight, fresh air and closeness to the natural environment is good for our mental and physical health. In the 1800s and 1900s, doctors often prescribed walks outside or urged patients to visit the seaside as a way of healing chronic conditions. But it’s only recently that we’ve been able to track the biomarkers that reveal nature’s power to relieve stress and anxiety, says Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix.
Williams points to a study that compares the effects of 90-minute walks in natural or urban settings. Brain scans showed that people who went on a nature stroll had less activity in the part of the brain associated with rumination– the habit of replaying negative thoughts over and over in our minds, a classic symptom of everyday stress.
Time spent outside may have a profound healing effect on those who are dealing with mood disorders, too. Researchers at the University of Essex in England found that that 90% of people suffering from depression said they felt greater self-esteem after a walk through a country park. Nearly 75% reported feeling less depressed.
HOW DOES NATURE HEAL US?
Why does contact with nature work so powerfully in restoring our mental balance? Steve Taylor, lecturer and author of bestselling books on psychology and spirituality, says the answer lies deep in our human history.
We’ve been closely bonded with nature throughout our existence as a species, Taylor points out. So contact with natural spaces “is like going back home, filing us with the same sense of safety and belonging. We crave nature the same way a child needs a mother, deriving the same feeling of comfort from it.”
TIPS FOR GETTING OUTSIDE
If you’re like the average American, you spend an astounding 90% of your time indoors. This includes time spent riding in cars, trains and other vehicles. Clearly, we are missing out on the healing benefits nature has to offer.
The growing field of eco therapy draws on the wisdom that spending time outdoors can have tremendous value for our mental health. Here are a few of my favorite suggestions for stepping outside more often to nourish your mind, body and spirit.
- Explore the parks and neighborhoods near your home. Leave your phone behind so you can focus on the living environment all around you. Look for plants, flowers and animals you haven’t seen before. Listen to the wind in the trees or pause to watch the clouds drift in the sky.
- Stroll along the shores of Lake Michigan, watching the waves roll in. If you’re an early bird, get there in time to watch the sun rise. It’s beyond inspiring.
- Walk, hike or bike through our local Forest Preserve. The Cook County Forest Preserve encompasses nearly 70,000 acres, the largest preserve of its kind in the country!
- Plant a garden, even if it’s just a few pots on your porch or balcony. You can even take advantage of community gardens or help friends and family maintain their green spaces. Weeding, raking, pruning and enjoying veggies and flowers you’ve grown yourself is richly rewarding.
- Rethink your travel plans to include more time outdoors. Explore the desert, hike mountain trails, swim in the ocean or spend time enjoying rivers and lakes. If you have mobility problems, check out this list of 5 natural destinations that offer easy access.
- Experiment with a nature-based hobby. Bird-watching, shell collecting, mushroom hunting and wildflower sketching are just a few of the possibilities. Bonus: when you learn a new skill, you’re actively feeding your brain’s health, too.
- Visit the Chicago Botanic Garden. It’s a wonderland of trees, shrubs, plants and waterways that is easily accessible to all.
HELPING YOU LIVE A HEALTHFUL, BALANCED LIFE
As a therapist working with people of all ages in Oak Park and surrounding communities, I am here to support you in creating a peaceful, satisfying life. Spending time in nature is just one of the ways you can overcome the effects of stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges that affect so many of us. To find out more about therapy for yourself or someone you care about, contact me here.