The holidays can be a wonderful time of year, but they can also be a source of stress: getting along with family members, buying gifts, shopping and preparing food, and traveling to various locations can be tiring and overwhelming. This year especially, I find my stress levels abnormally high as I contemplate the events going on in the world and the future. Luckily, there’s one small thing that you can do to make yourself feel better, and it doesn’t involve any medication:
Get outside and find some nature.
This idea has always resonated with me; whenever I go on a camping trip or even just for a day hike, I feel more calm, more awake, and less anxious than I did before. When I’m outside in the sun, breathing in some fresh air and immersing myself in natural sights and sounds, it’s easier to forget momentarily about my worries and responsibilities in everyday life.
But it’s not just intuition; scientists and academics back up the idea that being in nature not only relieves stress, but has numerous other health benefits and can lead to higher overall well-being. It’s related to an idea called biophilia, or the “fundamental, genetically based human need to affiliate with life.” Consider the following:
- In a 1984 study, patients with rooms that had a view of a natural setting recovered faster than those whose window showed simply a brick wall.
- A 2009 study showed that there was a lower rate of 15 diseases – including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines – in people who were living within half a mile of a natural space.
- Several studies have shown that people who normally live in the city have lower levels of stress hormones right after they take a walk in nature.
- Stanford researcher Greg Bratman had one group of people walk on a busy city street, and had another group walk through a lush nature setting. The nature walkers experienced lower activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex of their brain – an area related to “depressive rumination”. But people in the city group were more likely to dwell on negative emotions during their walks. The nature walkers also had cognitive effects like increased memory performance.
David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, hypothesizes that “being in nature allows the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s command center, to dial down and rest, like an overused muscle.” This, along with lowered stress hormones, lower risk of disease, and a lower tendency to think negatively, contributes to the compelling evidence that being in nature feels good for a reason.
It seems so simple – just take some time to go for a hike or play outside and you’ll feel better. But while approximately 70% of mothers in the U.S. played outside as children, only 31% of their kids do. Over 50% of people live in cities, which is a huge change from even a few decades ago. Increased urbanization, overpopulation, increased access to technology, and decreased safety worldwide has led to a major disconnect between humans and natural spaces. One study showed that only 10% of American teenagers spend time outside on a daily basis.
And while some people live in a place with lots of nature, hiking, and outdoor activities, others struggle to find even a neighborhood park. There is also a huge correlation between race/socioeconomic class and access to nature, and it is certainly one of many factors that contributes to the institutionalized racism and cycle of poverty in our world.
But no matter your physical accessibility, individually or situationally, to nature, I encourage you to even just go outside for a few moments this Thanksgiving weekend. Take the time to look up at the sky, see if you can find a bird singing nearby, and visit your favorite tree down the block.
You’ll probably feel a little bit better.