The impact of stress is something everyone is familiar with, and all of us need to take care of ourselves in order to maintain healthy levels. When we feel balanced, stress can actually be helpful for motivating us and providing us with the energy to complete a project or try something new. When our stability is off, however, the weight of added stress can feel too heavy and overwhelming. Tuning in and listening to our bodies and our emotions is important so that we can to attend to the cues our bodies give us.
One low-cost way I practice balance is by spending time outdoors. Summers in Minnesota offer us: hiking, kayaking, boating, paddle boarding, swimming, camping, beautiful spaces to picnic and read, and countless other activities to enjoy. Within minutes of being in nature, we notice a feeling of calm, our moods lift, our stress levels decrease, and we feel a sense of spaciousness and restoration. This helps us keep our footing and manage what comes next. Intuitively, we know we feel better after being outside, but we not only feel healthier; there is measurable data to back up our experiences.
Many studies have shown that our mental and physical health are improved in as little as fifteen minutes outdoors. Being in nature decreases anxiety levels by lowering our blood pressure and heart rate. It has been known to improve mood and restore a sense of hope. Stanford researchers found cortisol (stress hormone) levels, heartrate, and heartrate variability were lower for participants who spent time walking in nature than for those who walked in an urban setting for the same amount of time. In addition, the nature walkers’ brain scans showed reduced activity in area of the prefrontal cortex associated with depressive symptoms, and the nature walkers reported fewer and less intense symptoms of depression following their walks. Did you know that spending time in nature has also been shown to boost focus and memory, help our bodies heal at a faster rate, and even strengthen our immune systems? A study in Japan found a link between spending six hours in nature over the span of one weekend and an increased number of white blood cells in their bodies, lasting for the next several days.
Remember, it is not necessary to camp overnight or devote even an entire afternoon to nature. Just fifteen minutes can positively impact our health. Think quality over quantity. Truly engaging in nature brings a greater sense of restoration and grounding. To get the most out of my time outside, I try to take in my surroundings not only visually, but also through my other senses. I might listen to the leaves on the trees rustle and the faint sound of water meeting the shore of a nearby lake. I intentionally notice the warm sun and light breeze. There may be times when stress or anxiety is particularly high and it feels like a struggle to take in what is around us. One effective way to help ourselves tune in is by utilizing the 5-4-3-2-1 strategy: notice or even name five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can smell, two things you can feel, and one thing you can taste. In addition to absorbing more of your environment, this technique also reinforces the connection and awareness between the mind and body, which plays a major part in maintaining a sense of balance.
We can all benefit from lowering our stress levels, and being in or viewing nature is one way to foster our mental and physical health. Remember there is no right or wrong way to get outside; enjoy your time in the natural environment however it feels right for you.
Carrie Niles, MA, LPC
Individual and Family Therapist
Lakes Center for Youth and Families