Going outside provides myriad health benefits. No matter what you struggle with, outdoor time is good for your mental health.
The world we live in is increasingly complex and difficult to navigate. In the last couple of years alone, we have seen drastic changes all around us – and many experts believe that mental health challenges are “the next pandemic.” A study done by the National Center for Biotechnology Information shows that there has been an increase in anxiety and depression over the last two years, regardless of age. The pandemic has taken a toll on us all and our mental health, it’s no wonder that people need relief and a place to rest now more than ever.
For many people, going outside has become a source of joy and a way to manage the stresses of everyday life. Time spent in nature is proven to be relaxing and rejuvenating. An article from the Journal of Environmental Psychology demonstrates that natural environments are the best spaces for people to heal and restore feelings of hope. Unfortunately, not everyone feels safe in the outdoors and access to outdoor spaces is a privilege not equally distributed. The health benefits of time in nature further underscore the importance of creating equitable access to the outdoors.
When people are in serene environments, they have the opportunity to rest and reset. We all need a break from our routines, and we all need time to reconnect with the earth. And compassion is often at the core of this experience.
Restore Compassion for Yourself, Others and the Environment
Outward Bound Expeditions are centered around the concept of compassion. What does it look like to be compassionate, towards yourself, others and the environment? The first step is to embrace rest. Don’t expect yourself to always be productive and to pretend that you’re fine all the time. Recognizing when you are tired and need a break is extremely important, and it takes a great deal of compassion to be able to prioritize the rest you deserve.
When we are ourselves centered, we are better able to support others. The ethos of “crew, not passengers” is important at Outward Bound, where we believe everyone in the group plays a critical role.
And that compassion extends to how we show up for the environment that nurtures us. Whether it’s in the methods of our camp craft or our service projects with our community partners, our students learn to be in relationship with nature – skills that transfer to all our shared spaces.
Time Outside Reduces Symptoms of Anxiety, Depression and Social Stress
Getting outside will help you combat the symptoms you may be feeling. Whether you struggle with isolation, stress, depression, anxiety, PTSD or any other Mental Health concern, taking time to simply be in nature can be immensely helpful. Of course, there is no substitute for getting care from a Mental Health Professional, Therapist or Psychiatrist. If you are experiencing symptoms of extreme distress, thoughts of hurting yourself or someone else or episodes of mental illness that inhibit your daily life, reach out to a healthcare professional* as soon as possible.
When it comes to mild anxiety, manageable depression and social stress, however, studies have shown that spending time in nature quantifiably reduces symptoms. And you don’t have to go far to find nature! Urban hikes, beaches, city parks and parking lots overgrown with wildflowers offer opportunities to experience nature’s benefits. Spending 15 minutes outside can make a real difference.
Natural spaces are important for many reasons, one of which is the way they support healing. When you are outside, especially away from screens, your body sinks into a more natural rhythm, and the healing can begin. Simply by sitting in the sun, you are healing. You are exposed to Vitamin D, a nutrient that plays a role in boosting serotonin. This can be especially helpful for people who experience depression because studies have also shown that people with depression tend to have less Vitamin D in their bodies. Laying on the beach might just seem like a great way to get a tan, but it’s also a great way to build up your body’s Vitamin D stores.
Kick Start Your Body’s Endorphins Through Physical Exercise
Spending time outdoors is great for another reason: it’s a great environment for physical activity. I’m not talking about running a trail marathon right off the couch; I’m talking about sustained, low-level exercise. Harvard Medical School released an article explaining how regular exercise forces your brain to create nerve cell growth and make new connections. When we get our blood pumping, it kicks off a process of endorphins that run through the entire body. Over time, you’ll notice the symptoms of depression become more bearable, and don’t worry, exercising will become more bearable too.
Be gentle with yourself in this process. It takes time to build habits and get comfortable with exercising outdoors. The outdoors can be a humbling place, and it’s okay to change plans, adjust last minute or do something else entirely if your original plan isn’t working. Removing yourself from your normal environment, your normal coping mechanisms, and your support system can be scary. But in the right environment, the distance can also be comforting. You can focus on the moment, listen to the sounds of nature, and maybe forget the to-do list for a little while.
Strategies to Help You Unplug
If you struggle with anxiety, there are strategies available for you to make sure you can fully be present when you go outside. Set yourself up for success by making sure you are going to be “off” for the time you are in nature. Make it intentional. Turn off your phone and set an out-of-office email reply. Make a list of responsibilities so you know you aren’t forgetting anything. Take pictures of your appliances so you know you turned everything off before leaving the house. Carry a pen and paper with you to write down any urgent thoughts you have while you’re away.
Most importantly, remember that you are not alone in this. Many of us are experiencing heightened social anxiety, and we are all going through collective trauma. Extend compassion to yourself and others, and use this as an opportunity to build community. Chances are if you are nervous about going hiking in a new area, there’s someone else who is, too! Maybe you can connect with them and you can explore a new place together.
Community-Based Time Outside
An article from the Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture describes the effects of green spaces on mental health. One of the key findings was that it is not just the natural environment that makes the difference, the social environment plays a big role. This is why it is so important to spend time with community in nature. Going out alone is a powerful experience and an important one. But going out with a group of close friends and family has the potential to be even more powerful because you are witnessing and participating in healing as a collective.
Sharing stories and experiences, laughing at jokes along the trail, and savoring the meals cooked over a backpacking stove are experiences that will bring you even closer to your loved ones. Perhaps someone you know is struggling with their mental health, and you have no idea. Maybe getting outside and going for a hike is exactly what you both need. The outdoors can be an incredible place to bond, talk about life and simply sit quietly and enjoy the peace. When we heal collectively, we are rejecting the concept of individualism, we are practicing community resilience, and we are creating opportunities for everyone to be open with their struggles.
We’re in This Together
There is no shame in having a mental illness or struggling with your mental health. We build community when we give each other space to feel our feelings. We build power when we get vulnerable with each other. We build radical social structures that promote trust, sharing of resources, and compassion. We can re-imagine what self-care and community care look like. The groups I have been in when I instructed Outward Bound courses were some of the most kind and understanding people I have ever met, and the community that we created during our short time in nature was a beautiful thing.
You might be surprised by how many people can relate to struggling with mental health. It’s something that we need to talk about more, especially in regards to the outdoors. Going outside is an incredible tool and while it may not permanently erase our life’s challenges, going into nature does help us reset, to focus on the big picture, and to release stressors that are out of our control. When we are physically distant from our work, stressors, or triggers, it frees up space in our minds to focus on the beauty around us.
Going outside provides myriad health benefits for everyone. No matter what you struggle with, going outside is good for your health. Soak in critical vitamins, get your heart rate up, build a compassionate community and give yourself space to rest and relax. Consider adding a daily walk or time outside to your current Mental Health routine. Nature is not necessarily a 1:1 substitute for professional support, but it absolutely will provide benefits to your health. I highly encourage you to invite a friend, get outside and take advantage of the amazing natural resources we have all around us. It’s easy, free, relaxing, and healing.
*Need someone to talk to? The Crisis Text Line serves anyone, in any type of crisis, providing access to free, 24/7 support via text. Text HOME to 741741 to reach a Crisis Counselor today. If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States.
About the Author
Tilly Schoonhoven is a San Francisco Bay Area based educator, naturalist and poet, who goes by they/them pronouns. Tilly has worked in the outdoor industry for the past eight years, most recently at Outward Bound California as a Field Instructor, Equity Process Facilitator, Communications Contractor and Social Media Writer. They are passionate about bringing equity and justice to all corners of the outdoor industry, and they are known in their communities for engaging others in thoughtful and challenging dialogues to push the Outdoor industry forward. In their free time, Tilly enjoys taking care of their plants, and laying on the beach on a rare sunny day in San Francisco.