“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
― John Muir, John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir
The physical health benefits of exposure to fresh air, natural light, and rich greenery are often talked about. But nature is also essential for optimizing mental health by reducing cortisol levels, balancing hormones, and nourishing your neurotransmitters. Those neurotransmitters, in turn, positively affect sleep cycles, appetite, and mood.
The best part: all these mental health benefits come at the low cost of stepping away from your screens and into the outdoors.
What are Neurotransmitters?
Neurotransmitters are chemical synapses in our brains. Like roads or public transportation, neurotransmitters keep neurons connected to each other through nerve fibers. Also like roads or public transportation, whether the lanes are running smoothly or clogged up with traffic will trigger different types of behavior, thought, and emotions.
The seven major neurotransmitters are dopamine (reward chemical), serotonin (happiness chemical), GABA (calming chemical), glutamate (excitatory chemical), endorphins (pain reliever chemical), BDNF (neuron connecting chemical).
How does nature help?
We’re all guilt of more than a few weekends chilling at home binge-watching the latest Netflix series. The problem is spending too much time indoors. That’s when your emotional and mental health begins to suffer. Because we’re more likely to be sedentary, less social, and in front of a screen, being cooped up indoors for too long fuels anxiety and depression in the long run. Those emotional spirals then make it difficult to sleep and are likely to leave you feeling more exhausted the next morning than if you’d been busy all day.
Spending time outdoors, however, alleviates the “stir-crazy” feelings. Even just a walk in the park or short hike increases serotonin and dopamine levels–providing you with a positive, calmer mood.
How to connect to nature
You don’t need to canoe on an alpine lake, or hike through redwoods, or start rock climbing in order to better connect to nature. The goal is simply to be in nature, to be grounded in it. And in spite of increasing industrialization there are plenty of easy ways to, if not immerse yourself in, then at least experience the soothing benefits nature has to offer.
Walk barefoot – Don’t underestimate the power of sensory input. Take of your sneakers and flip flops and try walking barefoot across the lawn or a beach. If you’re fortunate enough to have access to a pool (or jacuzzi) try dipping your feet in every once in a while.
Get some sun – Sunlight provides Vitamin D which improves blood flow, lowers blood pressure, and relaxes blood vessels. It’s also important for bone and dental health and can even help reduce the risk of cancer. Exposure to light also helps to regulate our body’s internal clock and sleep cycle, AKA circadian rhythm. If you happen to live somewhere with limited sunlight, consider adding Vitamin D supplements to your diet and stave off those “winter blues.”
Breathe deeply – Studies have shown that deep breathing (or diaphragmatic breathing), especially deep breathing of fresh air, offer a range of measurable psychological and physiological benefits. Aside from stimulating the body’s parasympathetic system, inducing a calming effect, deep breaths also help regulate the lymphatic system by acting as a kind of pumping mechanism. Long term benefits include improved metabolism, stronger, immune system, and reduced cortisol levels.
Exercise outdoors – The combined power of endorphins (“feel good transmitters”) from exercising and serotonin (the “happiness chemical”) from being outdoors will leave you energized, clear, and calm. One study found that activities done outdoors are linked to stronger attention and focus. Jogging in the park, playing catch with your dog, even inviting friends over for a BBQ, can help increase long term concentration and decrease long term stress and anxiety.
Spend less time on devices – You won’t get as much out of your nature walk if you spend it glued to your phone, checking messages or email. Less time in front of a screen increases our problem solving skills and improves creativity.
A word of caution: there is still a pandemic despite lessening of restrictions. I don’t mean to encourage people to defy any government lock downs and stay at home orders, but rather to say that when possible, try to carve out some time to be outdoors (whether it’s a walk around the block, reading in your backyard, or tending to a balcony herb garden).
Connecting with nature in our increasingly urban landscapes is not as easy as it once was, but the practice is ingrained on our very beings. John Muir describes it best in the above quote. In connecting with nature, being grounded in the world around us, we tend to become more aware of ourselves and, I would say, we tend to be more grateful and appreciative of what our lives have to offer.