There have been times when I forget to breathe. Not entirely, but enough to cause my chest to tighten, make my heart to accelerate, roll in brain fog, and activate a disruptive surge of panic through my body. At those times, I’m not quite aware it’s happening.
Anxiety is conniving like that.
It’s been an unwelcome companion for much of my life. And anxiety’s partner, depression, stops by once in awhile too. I’m not alone, and if you experience it too, you’re not either. Anxiety disorders affect about 40 million adults in the U.S. and that number is steadily rising.
Whether you’re experiencing a situational and temporary season of mental unease, or you’ve navigated mental health issues throughout your life, spending intentional time outdoors can do us all loads of good. Our daily lives can be wrought with dissonance and noise. Being in a constant state of “busy” is often the norm, leaving little time to check in with ourselves.
The outdoors isn’t a cure-all. It’s one method that people use to help enhance their mental wellbeing. If you think you may have a serious mental health condition, it’s important to speak with a mental health professional. That being said, taking a step back and immersing ourselves in nature has profound benefits. It helps decrease stress, alleviate depression and anxiety symptoms, and promote cognitive clarity. It’s a powerful resource that offers heuristic lessons–of life, self, and meaning—not found elsewhere.
Here are four ways the outdoors improves mental wellbeing:
1. Disconnecting Helps You Connect
Having little to no cell service can be one of the best things for you. We are daily inundated with unnecessary messages and distractions, which can lead to over-stimulation and brain fog.
One of my favorite quotes by John Muir (also known of Mountains, no less) is this:
“All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go, to highlands or lowlands, woods or plains, on the sea or land or down among the crystals of waves or high in a balloon in the sky; through all the climates, hot or cold, storms and calms, everywhere and always we are in God’s eternal beauty and love. So universally true is this, the spot where we chance to be always seems the best.”
Enjoying nature is different for everyone. You can take a stroll through your neighborhood park or plan an extensive backpacking trip to Patagonia. You can jump in the ocean for 30 minutes or go sailing for a month. The point is to get outside! Breaking away from a constant state of busy to simply “be” can do wonders for your mind. A study showed that participants who went on 90 minute walks in nature (as opposed to an urban setting) had decreased instances of rumination, which are repetitive and often negative thoughts. Rumination is a key factor in mental disruptors like depression and anxiety. So when distractions are not present, you can be. After all, being outside makes room for more mindfulness.
2. Movement is Medicine
Take a hike. No really, take a hike! Solely being outside and breathing in fresh air has copious mental health benefits, but coupling that with movement will elevate your mental—and physical—wellbeing substantially. Moving our bodies increases oxygen to our brains, decreases stress, promotes the growth of healthy neurotransmitters, improves sleep, and acts as an antidepressant.
Then we’ve got the physical benefits of movement. Exploring the outdoors can inspire play, and there’s so many benefits of play! Remember how important play was to you as a child? It enabled judgement-free self-expression and boosted imagination, informing so much of who we became and largely influencing our cognitive development. Psst: those benefits still apply to adults. It helps alleviate stress, promote creativity, and boost energy. Personally, I find so much joy when my inner child is awakened!
3. Shifts Perspective
Ever gazed at a dark sky glittering with a star-filled milky way? Or peered up at a giant Redwood you can’t see the top of? Nature is inherently inspiring and serves to remind us how much beauty this world holds. It instills awe and wonder, which can help expand our curiosity and creativity. This positive perspective shift can do wonders for our minds.
Whether you’re taking in the views from atop a mountain or paddling waves in the vast ocean, nature has a way of reminding us that there’s more to our lives than the mundane, and can help us zoom out and focus on the bigger picture. It helps us adjust our lens on life, viewing our past experiences, current situations, and thoughts of the future with gratitude and hope. Maybe your challenges don’t seem so impossible anymore. Perhaps this change in perspective equips you with the tools to address problems in a healthy and productive manner.
4. Cultivates Community
After exploring the wilderness alone, the polarizing but still notably adventurous Christopher McCandless wrote one of his lasting concluding thoughts in his journal:
“Happiness is only real when shared.”
The outdoors has this unparalleled way of gathering together people from all walks of life. It acts as a common thread, connecting people with different jobs, lifestyles, perspectives, and experiences, and pulling them into a beautifully diverse community.
Cultivating human connection and maintaining a sense of belonging is key for sustainable mental wellness. Isolation can keep us in our own heads, so spending time and talking through our thoughts with other people can be healing. I experienced some of the most profound and perspective-shifting conversations around a campfire, on a trail, or at the base of a boulder project.
No matter your background or experience, nature is welcoming and doesn’t discriminate, and you’ll most likely find that a lot of people who enjoy nature act the same way.
And speaking of relationships: when we’re constantly in fight or flight mode (i.e. anxious), it shows up in how we interact with others. We may find ourselves flighty and temperamental, or constantly reacting instead of responding — all without even realizing it. When we strip ourselves of daily distractions and immerse ourselves in nature, we have more space to breathe and reflect in a healthy way (not ruminate). It enables us to turn inward and check-in with ourselves. And once we identify our behaviors, we can make steps to amend it, if necessary.
So seek out and create opportunities to go outside. Schedule intentional time on your calendar to stroll, hike, swim, climb, explore — or simply be — in nature.
Your mind, body, and soul will thank you.