Summary of research and a few exercises you can use
I don’t use the word should very often. It’s a dirty word. And who am I to tell anyone they should do anything? But I will right now: you should get outside more! And it’s not just me saying this, it’s science!
I’ve long been a lover of the outdoors participating in numerous sports and other outdoor activities over the course of my life. However it was about 10 years ago when I was on a 4 day backpacking trip with a self admitted stress-loving over-working friend of mine that I first caught a glimpse of the true power of the wilderness beyond being just a venue for recreation. It was on this trip that I solidified my decision to go back to grad school to become a counselor because I wanted to help people get to the place of openness, self-exploration, relaxation, and motivation that I saw in my friend that day. I’ve learned a lot of skills and tools over the years, but none have been as good as nature to get the effects I saw that trip.
One of my biggest fears is being judged, so I’ve only dipped my toe in the outdoor therapy world until this point. The last thing I want to be judged as is a long haired tree hugging hippy who takes people into the woods to reconnect with nature with drum circles to find their lost soul (Not that there is anything wrong with any of that – I’ve done them all and they are great! You may consider trying those things too 😉 ). But I know that scene is repulsive to some people so I’ve purposely stayed away from it professionally, because I know that sometimes people who are afraid to drop their guard enough to try something that far out of their comfort zone can be the people that need the power of the outdoors most.
So lately, I’ve been excited to find that more research is being done to understand what effects being outside does have on our minds and bodies. In this recent National Geographic article, the author does a great job summarizing the results of international research from the past few years. I still recommend reading it, but here are some of the main research points if you don’t have time.
Scroll down to the bold print to skip the research and get right to the exercise.
Being outside helps your brain take a break from it’s constant use. This can reduce stress, increase creativity, and produce a difference in qualitative thinking. We think it lets the pre-frontal cortex unplug for a bit (the part of our brain in charge of cognitive function, rational thought, planning, personality, social expression,
inhibitions, decision making, executive functioning, and more.) The most pronounced changes happens after being outside for 3 days.
But even a 15-minute walk in the woods causes measurable changes in physiology. Japanese researchers at Chiba University sent 84 subjects to stroll in seven different forests, while the same number of volunteers walked around city centers. The forest walkers hit a relaxation jackpot: Overall they showed a 16 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a 2 percent drop in blood pressure, and a 4 percent drop in heart rate. Researcher Miyazaki believes our bodies relax in pleasant, natural surroundings because they evolved there. Our senses are adapted to interpret information about plants and streams, he says, not traffic and high-rises.
The South Koreans have been doing research on the impact of work stress, long hours, digital addiction, and academic pressures. They are now devoting some forests as healing centers and prescribing time in nature to help combat these maladies. They have research that shows forest healing reduces medical costs
Several unrelated studies in England, Denmark, Canada, and Scotland all showed lower mortality, fewer stress hormones, less mental distress and lower incidence of 15 diseases including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines even when adjusted for confounding variables. That is levels of income, education, employment, and exercise did not effect the data. Just living near green space made a difference. If anything, lower income people seemed to benefit the most.
“In Finland, a country that struggles with high rates of depression, alcoholism, and suicide, government-funded researchers asked thousands of people to rate their moods and stress levels after visiting both natural and urban areas. Based on that study and others, Professor Liisa Tyrväinen and her team at the Natural Resources Institute Finland recommend a minimum nature dose of five hours a month—several short visits a week—to ward off the blues. “A 40- to 50-minute walk seems to be enough for physiological changes and mood changes and probably for attention,” says Kalevi Korpela, a professor of psychology at the University of Tampere. He has helped design a half dozen “power trails” that encourage walking, mindfulness, and reflection. Signs on them say things like, “Squat down and touch a plant.””
“Korean researchers used functional MRI to watch brain activity in people viewing different images. When the volunteers were looking at urban scenes, their brains showed more blood flow in the amygdala, which processes fear and anxiety. In contrast, the natural scenes lit up the anterior cingulate and the insula—areas associated with empathy and altruism. It may also make us nicer to ourselves. Stanford researcher Greg Bratman and his colleagues scanned the brains of 38 volunteers before and after they walked for 90 minutes, either in a large park or on a busy street in downtown Palo Alto. The nature walkers, but not the city walkers, showed decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex—a part of the brain tied to depressive rumination—and from their own reports, the nature walkers beat themselves up less.”
And the nature you visit doesn’t have to be in a wilderness area and it doesn’t just affect mood. Another study showed a 50-minute walk in an arboretum improved executive attention skills, such as short-term memory, while walking along a city street did not. “Imagine a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost,” the researchers wrote in their paper. It exists, they continued, and it’s called “interacting with nature.”
To summarize, there is research that suggests viewing and/or being in nature can reduce stress, reduce disease (including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines), decrease blood pressure and heart rate, improve attention, improve mood, increase empathy and altruism, increase creativity, decrease depressive rumination, and while I haven’t seen research that supports this, my experience is that most people tend to enjoy themselves and have a good time. Not bad for something that is free.
So like I said earlier, you really should get outside more. Just getting outside can help. Do it regularly, do it often, and at least once in a while, go for longer periods of time. If you want to make your time outside even more restorative and connecting, here’s a few tips and tools I’ve learned from personal observation that can enhance your experience.
- Disconnect from time. If you have a time limit, set a timer or alarm for 1/2 the amount of time you are willing to give to this experience. When this sounds, you will need to turn around and make your way back. Until then, don’t worry about time, your timer will tell you when you need to head back. Let yourself be fully present to the natural environment.
- Mark your transition from your urban/suburban/societal/structured/scheduled life into the natural world. When you leave the parking lot, sidewalk, building, etc and enter into natural space, make a mental note that you are shifting from one way of being into another. At this point, be sure your phone is on silent, your to-do list is put away, your calendar holds your obligations, and anything that is taking mental space is put on hold for the duration of your journey.If necessary, physically stop and mentally put down stresses, issues, people, thoughts, feelings, responsibilities, or anything currently bothering you that could get in the way of you being present with the natural world. Imagine a container to hold them and/or put them near a rock, tree, or entrance and leave them there. You can pick them up again on your way out (if you want).
- If there is something you are pondering or something is really bothering you and you would be open to letting your creative subconscious mind work on it for you, set an intention or ask a question as you enter this space. Then drop it. Notice what you notice (see below) while you are in the natural environment, and maybe there will be some insight into your situation. Or maybe not, but it doesn’t hurt to try.
- Come back to your senses! Just notice what you notice. When in natural space, let your analytical mind take a break and instead focus on your senses. What do you sense outside of you with your sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch? What do you notice in your body as you move? What do you notice in your emotional and
energetic state? What thoughts pop into your mind automatically? Just notice what you notice, then notice something else. Over and over again while you are there.
- Let your curiosity awaken. What do your eyes get drawn to? What sounds do you hear? What made them? Don’t worry about right and wrong or really knowing the answer. Just be curious. Which direction will you head? Let your curiosity and intuition be your guide. When you find something interesting, stop and study it with all your senses. What will you discover? I’m getting excited for you!
- When it is time to leave, before you leave the space pause for a minute or two and reflect on all that you noticed. Offer thanks to yourself for letting yourself have the time and thanks to the space and any creatures, insights, or special moments that presented themselves.
- Bring the experience back into your ordinary life. Write about your experience and/or tell somebody that will just listen. Let these questions guide you: What happened here? (Recount as much as you can) What did you learn from it? What are the bigger picture deeper lessons? How can it inform my life? How did this time outside help me?
So there you go. Get outside. Deepen in your relationship with yourself and with the natural world. Do this with a friend or family member and deepen in your relationship with them. If you have questions or would like to share your experience with this exercise, I’d love to hear from you. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hope to see you outside!
Chuck Hancock, M.Ed, LPC is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of CO. He has completed comprehensive training in the Hakomi Method of Experiential Psychotherapy, a mindfulness mind-body centered approach. Chuck guides individuals and groups in self-exploration providing them with insight and tools for change. He also incorporates nature as a therapy tool to help shift perspective and inspire new patterns.
Is your analytic brain still not convinced? Here are links to more articles and research.
Nature and Mental Health, Cognitive Function, Attention: https://depts.washington.edu/hhwb/Thm_Mental.html
Exploring the Mental Health Benefits of Natural Environments
Stanford researchers find mental health prescription: Nature.
2 Minute Walk May Reverse Harms of Sitting
Benefits Of Ecotherapy: Being In Nature Fights Depression, Improves Mental Health And Well-Being
Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation
Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings
Hartig, T., Mang, M., and Evans, G. (1991). Restorative effects of natural environment experiences. Environment and behavior , 23 (1), 3-26.
Kaplan, R. and Kaplan, S. (1989). The Experience of nature . Cambridge Press.
Kaplan. S. and Talbot, J. (1983). Psychological benefits of a wilderness experience. In Altman, I. and Wohlwill, (Eds.), Behavior and the natural environment . New York: Plenum Press.
Turner, V. (1969). The ritual process . Chicago: Aldine.
Ulrich, R. S. et al. (1991). Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal of environmental psychology , 11 (3), 201-230.
Do you know of a good study not cited here? Please send it my way. I’m collecting good empirical support to make time in nature an “Evidence Based Practice.”