Americans are stressed.
Political and racial turmoil, economic instability, environmental calamity, and, of course, a global pandemic have contributed to what the American Psychological Association called a “national mental health crisis” in its 2020 Stress in America report, published in October. Nearly 4 out of 5 Americans surveyed (78 percent) said COVID-19 was a “significant source of daily stress” for them in 2020, nearly 1 in 5 said their mental health was worse in 2020 than it was in the previous year, and half said their stress had caused changes in their behavior—including “snapping” in anger, experiencing mood swings, and yelling or screaming at a loved one.
For some, professional therapy can help. For others, relief can come by walking out the front or back door. That’s right: While outdoor activities clearly benefit our physical health, simply being outside gives us a mental boost as well.
Gauging the benefits of nature on mental well-being is a fast-growing segment of scientific inquiry. According to a 2014 review of previous academic research, nature provides relief and recovery from stress and mental fatigue. War veterans and at-risk youth exhibited fewer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder upon returning from whitewater rafting trips than pre-trip, University of California–Berkeley researchers found in 2018. Residents of a neighborhood in Ghent, Belgium, with an abundance of green space reported feeling happier than residents from a neighborhood with less green space. In fact, as little as 10 minutes outdoors begins to lower our blood pressure and improve our mood and focus, according to 2020 research out of Cornell University. These are just a few of the many studies connecting the dots between time in nature and lower stress and anxiety.
Megan Showers is a licensed clinical social worker in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. She incorporates nature, the outdoors, and recreational wilderness therapies—sometimes called “ecotherapy”—into her mental health practice to assist those struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, substance abuse, and depression.
“I have seen the benefits of wilderness therapy options such as camping groups, recreational fishing groups, outdoor meditation groups, and hiking retreats,” Showers says. “I also often utilize mindfulness techniques and self-soothing techniques that focus on using nature as the backdrop. I have seen full reduction of symptoms in many of my clients’ anxiety and depression from these practices and an increase in spiritual connectivity and hopefulness.”
Ways to Destress Outdoors
With or without an ecotherapist, you can begin to reduce your stress and anxiety outdoors. Showers shared several of her go-to activities, including several that can be done anywhere, to shake off your stress and boost your mental health.
Bathe in Nature
Forest bathing, according to Showers, is “mindful time spent in nature.” A pastime in Japan, forest bathing is venturing into the woods and merely being.
“If you have ever focused on your senses by spending time outside listening to the cheerful chirping of birds, smelling the fragrance of spring flowers, or feeling the gentle breeze on your skin—then you have engaged in forest bathing,” Showers says.
Planting and maintaining a garden, either indoors or outdoors, is an excellent way to add some green into your home, office, or outdoor space, Showers says. Container gardens and urban community gardens are time-tested ways to grow flowers and food, and enterprising designers have even created hacks to turn a common indoor cabinet into a vibrant greenhouse.
Involvement in conservation activities such as planting trees and community gardens can cultivate a sense of belonging, connectedness, and can create a sense of purpose and hopefulness. Springtime offers many opportunities at the local chapter level to join an AMC chapter group clearing blown-down trees from trails or making small repairs in preparation for the summer hiking season. Not only will you be helping maintain and preserve the trails you love and enjoy, you’ll feel great doing it.
Get Some Exercise
Whether you’re backcountry skiing, paddling, or simply circling the block, getting any form of exercise outdoors is extremely beneficial for mental and physical health. A strong body, in other words, yields a stronger mind.
“Even better if you are able to find and join a group walk or hiking group in your neighborhood, as this reduces isolation and provides increased accountability,” Showers says. AMC offers many COVID-safe group outings in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast to work out your mind and body.
Build an Outdoor Lifestyle
Instead of relying on one or two epic outdoor adventures per year to reduce stress and anxiety, consider building a life that integrates nature and the outdoors on a daily basis. Designing your own backyard oasis is one way to do this, and Showers adds the following suggestions:
- Use natural essential oils to manage stress and promote relaxation
- Grow plants around your office or home
- Participate in wilderness therapies such as camping groups, fishing groups, and hiking retreats
- Eat a diet rich in plants and whole foods
- Listen to nature sounds at home or outdoors
- Look at or paint pictures of nature (it’s been shown to relax us!)
- Walk the dog
- Do yoga or exercise outdoors
In these too-often stressful times, we need to take care of each other—and ourselves. Increasingly, science says some of the best ways to do so may be right out our front doors. See you outside.