Written by therapist Annmarie Schoenbeck
After what has felt like a few long seasons full of snow and rain, the weather has finally begun to warm up! Here in Chicago, the lakefront is getting lively, the patios are packed, and people have emerged from the indoors and are ready to soak up the sun. Personally, I’m not sure if it’s residual feelings from past quarantines or the general busyness of life these days, but this year I have found myself craving time outside like never before. While I of course recognize that time outside is good for me, I began to wonder about the specific ways that my mental health might be positively impacted by the time I spend in nature. Through a little personal research among friends, colleagues, and the internet– I have come to the conclusion that the good things we feel and experience while spending time outdoors are not coincidental and because of this, it’s worth it to spend intentional time outdoors to help boost our mental health!
Silly little walks are good for your body and your brain
At some point during the beginning of the pandemic, it seemed that we all collectively realized the importance of getting outside during a mentally and emotionally destabilizing time of isolation and uncertainty. That spring, I got in the habit of walking around my neighborhood as a way to give my aimless days a little more structure, giving my brain a break from all the “doom scrolling” I was partaking in. I used my time outside to focus on my breath and I tried to be mindful and aware of my surroundings as a way to work to calm my anxieties and fears during my time outside. As the weeks passed, I found myself able to focus better during the days and sleep more soundly at night. Similarly, over these past few years, and especially in recent months, I have been seeing more and more friends and strangers on the internet talking about how they are taking daily, “silly little walks,” to help with their mental health. As a mental health clinician, it has been so fun to see something that is beneficial to your brain and body become an internet trend.
Brain benefits of being outdoors
On a psychological level, we can acknowledge that the bi-lateral movement that a person experiences while they walk is holistically good for us! Bi-lateral movement is one of the key components of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. Normally in session with a therapist, EMDR therapy uses tapping, vibrations, sounds, or light to help activate both sides of your brain (this is the bi-lateral part!) to connect the help you process through trauma, and negative thoughts, or experiences. Similarly, going for a walk outside while talking with a friend or even thinking about what might be presently causing you stress or anxiety can be a helpful way to process through some heavy feelings and experiences! The creator of EMDR actually first realized the benefits of bi-lateral movement while going on a walk through a park– sometimes the simplest things can have noticeable effects and benefits to our mental health!
They don’t call it the great outdoors for nothing!
Naturally, we are drawn to the sun – its warmth, light, and energy provide so much to the ecosystems around us. Just think of the vitamin D we get from the sun: those rays help to protect us from diseases, keep our physical bodies in optimal working condition, and help improve our mental health and wellness. There is also more and more evidence that points to the benefits of enjoying the green (think forests, grasses, and gardens) and blue (lakes, rivers, and oceans) spaces found in nature. Spending time in these physical landscapes can help us manage our stress and reduce anxiety, and even have physical impacts on our bodies by lowering blood pressure and heart rate.
Letting ourselves be nurtured by nature
Lastly, spending time outside can help us slow down and be mindful of the resiliency that surrounds us in nature. When we are feeling lonely, isolated, and broken– it can be helpful to look outward and into nature! The earth’s inherent ability to regrow and remain even through difficult times, environmental adversity, stormy weather, and unjust treatment can help call us back to the possibility of healing, growth, and change. Looking outside of our own anxieties and pain and into the beauty of this world around us can help motivate our inward growth and hope. Often in our hardest and darkest times, we can feel so wrapped up in our minds and emotions that we become sort of disconnected from our bodies. Spending time outside can help us connect and be present to ourselves in our physical bodies while also connecting to the world around us.
I recognize that after a literal long winter or a metaphorical season of darkness and isolation it can be difficult to open the door and get back out there– but there are so many signs and reasons that make getting outside and into nature a worthwhile endeavor. My hope is that you feel encouraged and know that even a little silly walk through your neighborhood or an afternoon sitting at the park can help to brighten your day and lighten your mental and emotional load!