Jason Strauss, MD, is Chair and Chief of Psychiatry at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Boston. As part of his medical practice, Dr. Strauss helps patients struggling with stress and anxiety. Here Dr. Strauss explains how getting outdoors can sometimes be the best medicine.
May is mental health awareness month, and between lingering concerns about the pandemic, global politics, and other cultural tensions, it seems that many people are a lot more stressed these days. Is this something that you see as a medical professional?
Absolutely. We’re all struggling with heightened stress and anxiety, and I see this regularly. We’re experiencing it in the hospital with staff, in our emergency rooms, and we’re getting a record number of referrals to our outpatient clinic. In fact, some studies suggest that a full third of the population of the United States currently meets the clinical criteria for an anxiety disorder. And there are many more who are struggling with anxiety who maybe don’t meet this criteria fully.
What steps can people take to reduce anxiety or stress that they might be feeling?
Just taking time for yourself to do something that’s just for you and that you can enjoy is a huge step. Getting away from the stress of your job, what’s going on in the world, and resetting – even if only briefly – can be hugely beneficial. You’re making a commitment to saying, I’m doing something. I’m taking care of myself.
Getting outside and being in a place that is tangibly different from your day-to-day environment can be a huge part of that.
A lot of people tout the benefits of getting outdoors, but is there any scientific evidence to back this up?
There are plenty of studies to support the benefits of being outdoors.
Researchers have actually done head imaging on people after taking walks outside, and it’s been shown that there is less activity after a walk outdoors in the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is at the very front of your brain. That’s the part of the brain that is very involved in rumination, worry, significant anxiety. And being outside decreases the brain activity that causes those feelings. Getting outdoors has also been shown to decrease blood pressure and the levels of a hormone called cortisol, which is the stress hormone.
When we talk about the outdoors some people might think that they need to take a long car ride to a remote area or be able to hike up a mountain peak in order to get these benefits. Is this the case?
Not at all. I’m in Boston, and there are a lot of places not far from where I’m sitting that are nice to get away to or walk around. Honestly, just changing your setting and being immersed in something that provides a different experience for your senses is beneficial.
Getting outside is also something that is helpful for people of every age, gender and ability. Obviously, you want to be careful in terms of not engaging in activities that are too big of a risk based on your abilities. But from a psychological standpoint, in terms of helping with depression, helping with anxiety, it’s good for almost everybody.
How do you like to be outdoors?
I love taking walks. I enjoy nature trails, in particular, but enjoy even just taking walks around the neighborhood if I don’t have the time to find someplace new. It’s a nice change of pace, and it’s something that is just a little different to look forward to.