Written by Stephanie Grunewald, PhD

Have You Heard The Buzz? Wandering In Nature Has Many Benefits

I did not understand the positive impact of spending time in nature – hiking or otherwise – until I truly needed it the most. After the death of my mother, I needed a way to process my grief. During the pandemic, many of the things I tended to do were not possible or safe. This is when hiking entered the picture.

Once the idea came to me, I thought of many excuses not to try hiking:

  • I am not physically fit. In fact, many of my clients have had to listen to my joke, “If you see me running, follow; there is danger coming!”
  • Aside from a few basics, I knew little about nature and the outdoors.
  • I had never hiked before.
  • I did not have any hiking gear.
  • If solitude was what I was after, should hiking be the answer? It shouldn’t be done alone, right?!

With this in mind, how could I overcome my fear?

After taking some time to reflect on what I wanted and identifying some barriers, I was able to find solutions:

  • I would stick to easy hikes, as decided by length of the hike, terrain, etc.
  • Instead of only hiking, I could go on tours throughout nearby attractions to give my body time to rest between hikes or I could drive longer distances some days.
  • Luckily, there are many resources available. I did research to learn more safety tips and researched the specific areas I planned to visit. While researching, I learned about the weather, animals, and read hiking tutorials.
  • Although there is no end to the gear you can purchase, getting started did not require much. Items such as hiking boots, weather-appropriate clothing, water bottles, and a backpack are the basic items required to get started!
  • While many sites warned of the danger of hiking alone, there were tips and protocols to follow that enabled me to create a safety plan and to offer peace of mind to me and my loved ones.

With the research and confidence I gained, my answer was decided! My first trip would take place in just over one month. I spent that time sitting in the anxiety — and excitement — of doing something new. Yet, I never could have imagined the transformation this trip had on my life.

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Hiking might not be what you are looking for, and that is okay! However, taking a moment to reflect on your needs, assess any barriers that may be leading you to feel stuck, and looking for solutions to move forward are critical to improving overall wellbeing. In addition, there are many ways to reap the rewards of time outdoors without hiking.

What are research studies concluding about spending time in nature?

There are countless studies about the positive effects nature can have on your mental health.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • It is soothing, which can decrease feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. In fact, one study found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural setting, such as a nature park, were less likely to ruminate—a common difficulty for people struggling with depression and anxiety.1
  • Being in natural environments was linked to improvements in working memory, cognitive flexibility, and attentional control. 2 Think of all you can achieve with such an increased ability to focus and execute!
  • Contact with nature was associated with increases in happiness, subjective well-being, positive affect, positive social interactions and a sense of meaning and purpose in life.3 In addition to all that time in nature added to people’s lives, the study additionally found that it led to decreases in mental distress.3
  • Whether you are spending time in a forest or near a lake, benefits can be experienced. For those who may be more drawn to water, research has found that blue spaces were also shown to lower stress and anxiety, while boosting people’s mood and psychological well being.4

Whether you are looking for a way to manage your own grief or to deal with anxiety, depression, or stress, there are endless reasons to seek solace in nature. I encourage you to reflect on what might be holding you back and then to identify one small step you can take to get started. Looking for some inspiration?

Here are some photos from my last trip:

Many of the hikes during my last trip were neither in the forest or near large bodies of water. However, some elements of both were present everywhere. Even in the midst of the desert, there was beauty that left me feeling a sense of renewal. This was a time for me to reflect on my life and process problems that were making me feel unsettled. Often, I felt inspired or gained a new sense of clarity. Allowing the time and space to leave daily life behind and focus on yourself is vital.

Take a step in your healing journey

You may not be ready to take a hike, but you can take one significant step toward healing by reaching out to Restorative Counseling to schedule an appointment. Each clinician has experience in working with people from all walks of life to process through the grief, stress, or daily hassles that can lead to feeling overwhelmed and unsure of what to do next.

References

1 Bratman, G. N., Hamilton, J. P., Hahn, K. S., Daily, G. C., & Gross, J. J. (2015). Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 112(28), 8567-8572.

2 Schertz, K. E., & Berman, M. G. (2019). Understanding Nature and Its Cognitive Benefits. Current Directions in Psychological Science28(5), 496–502. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721419854100

3 Bratman, G. N., Anderson, C. B., Berman, M. G., Cochran, B., de Vries, S., Flanders, J., Folke, C., Frumkin, H., Gross, J. J., Hartig, T., Kahn, P. H., Jr, Kuo, M., Lawler, J. J., Levin, P. S., Lindahl, T., Meyer-Lindenberg, A., Mitchell, R., Ouyang, Z., Roe, J., Scarlett, L., … Daily, G. C. (2019). Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective. Science advances5(7), eaax0903. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aax0903

4 Georgiou, M. & Chastin, S. (2021). Living near water can be beneficial to your mental health – here’s how to have more blue spaces in cities. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/living-near-water-can-be-beneficial-to-your-mental-health-heres-how-to-have-more-blue-spaces-in-cities-150486