Published March 30, 2020
Finding Calm in the Storm: How Nature Can Help During Times of Stress
Written by Julie Powers
It’s not a stretch to say we’ve all been a little on-edge lately, but some time spent outside in nature can be a simple bit of first-aid during these difficult times. Sustained stress takes a toll on our bodies, our minds, and sometimes even the people we love. Blood pressures, tension, and stress hormones all rise, we can feel anxious and depressed, and often tense in muscles we didn’t even know we had. One of the best things we can do to lighten our hearts and mitigate the effects of stress is to get our bodies out of doors!
A beneficial experience in nature can be active or passive- we can be doing something, like walking or playing, or we can reap the benefits by simply showing up and being present. Even if we aren’t exercising, a healthy dose of just being in nature can work wonders for our physical and mental health.
Studies have shown that time spent in nature can help us to manage stress by:
- lowering blood pressure
- decreasing heart rate
- lowering cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone
- reducing muscle tension
- making us more likely to frame our thoughts in positive ways
Additionally, time in nature can be an excellent activity for bonding with family members, or alternatively, it can provide a welcome break if you’ve been cooped up with others for too long! For those feeling lonely or isolated, some peaceful time in nature can even help you to feel more connected.
One of the most effective ways to utilize our outdoor time to de-stress lies in being present. Focusing on what we experience through all of our senses is a great way to remain present as it can help us to gently guide our minds away from the stresses we’re thinking about to a calmer state-of-mind. It may help to remember that you’ll have plenty of time to think about those things later- try to think of your time in nature as medicine, and set this time aside for yourself. Spend your time focused on observing and sensing, breathing fresh air, and cultivating a sense of gratitude, maybe for the beautiful view, or for the opportunity to be in a peaceful place, or maybe a glimpse of wildlife. Practice being open to whatever little nugget of joy the day might bring.
Try Being Still
Have you ever found a place in nature to just be quiet and sit still for a little while? Try it! You may see and hear all kinds of things, as small critters high and low may come out from their hiding places to investigate your presence, or simply go on about their business. Sometimes our eyes see completely new things when we take the time to truly observe rather than just passing by. Watching a leaf fall or a mouse scurrying about, or noticing a fresh sprig of green can create a sense of wonder. Finding wonder doesn’t require an expensive international trip to see a new landscape; it can be found right in your backyard, simply by noticing something new or seeing something in a different way. Think about the last time you felt a sense of wonder. What did it do for your mood? How did it affect your mental state? Your general attitude? Were you thinking about stressful things like finances or illness at that time? Likely not.
You Won’t Melt if You Get a Little Wet
We can probably all agree that a sunny day can do amazing things for our moods, but you don’t have to wait for the sun to get outside and benefit from nature. Did you know that a rainy day can be just as good, and sometimes even better? Wetter days can give us a different perspective on places we may already be familiar with. Plants might seem more lush and the soundtrack of the day will likely be altered. You may even be lucky enough to find that you have the trails or your local park all to yourself- perhaps a welcome source of peace during a challenging time. Many of us have listened to the sound of light rain for white noise, or to help us fall off to sleep. You might find it calming or maybe even exhilarating, and you don’t need a recording; just go outside! We can take an example from one of America’s earliest naturalists, John Muir, who was known to delight in all sorts of weather, and even climb to the tops of the tallest trees in lightning storms.
Of course, it isn’t recommended to be outside during lightning storms and dangerous weather, much less at the top of a tree! The point, however, is for us to recognize that there is still natural beauty to be had in many kinds of weather, and you don’t need a picture-perfect day to reap the stress-relieving benefits of being outside. Nature is always here for us to find solace in, no matter the weather. A note of caution, though: Staying dry is important, especially when it’s still a little chilly, so make sure to dress appropriately.
Spring is a special time of year to watch things come alive again, so pick a nearby trail, park, or just a spot in your own backyard, and get outside today! You can take a walk or just find a peaceful spot to sit, take in the sights, sounds, and scents, and know that even in this time of stress, when everything seems to have stopped short and few things seem dependable, our loyal and trusty friend, spring, will still arrive.
One other special note in light of COVID-19: Do go outside and visit RI’s natural places, but please also continue to observe social distancing guidelines, and maintain a safe space between yourself and others who may also be out seeking refuge. Learn More