Feeling Down, Stuck, or In a Rut? Get out in Nature, Says Science

A brief ode to the vast benefits of time spent outdoors, and some simple advice on how you can reap them.

In the popular book turned blockbuster movie Wild, during times when she was feeling down, Cheryl Strayed’s mom told her to, “Put yourself in the way of beauty.” It turns out that the latest science is proving Strayed’s mom right: Nature is, in fact, often the best medicine for many of our common ailments. And it’s not just that being in nature make us feel better. It can make us smarter, too.
 
Research shows that a walk or run in a natural setting changes the brain in ways that lessen anxiety and thwart transitory depression. Other studies show that being in nature enhances creativity. Though the direct causal mechanisms are still unknown, scientists speculate that when we are in nature we can’t help but feel a bit smaller and less significant. Activity in the parts of our brain associated with rumination and critical thinking diminishes, and the deeper and more imaginative parts of our brain have an opportunity to break through. 
 
In addition to the psychological benefits, experiences in nature also help us to “turn off” our physiological stress response, in essence, putting us in a more restful state. One study even found that being in nature — and in particular, experiencing the emotion of awe — decreases something called IL-6, which is a bio-marker associated with inflammation.

Although the last thing you may feel like doing when you are down is going outside, it’s one of the best things that you can do. My own personal experience is that forcing myself outside (and in particular, to exercise) helps me transition from feeling sorry for myself into a state where I feel stronger and more able to act.

Some practical advice:

  • When you feel yourself caught up in rumination or a rut, make it a priority to get out in nature. Even just a 30-minute walk can help. As I just said, getting out the door may seem like a big to do, but when you return you’ll almost always feel better.
  • The same thing goes for when you get stuck trying to solve a problem. Even though you may be tempted to continue starring into the screen or working on the whiteboard (especially if you are on a deadline), have the confidence to take a break and let your mind wander in nature. If you can’t make your way into greenspace, research shows that simply looking at pictures of natural settings for a few minutes can help spur creativity.
  • Make a weekend hike, run, climb, or walk in a natural setting part of your routine. It will help not only with physical health but with mental health and performance, too. Even if the drive out of the city and to the trail-head seems like a hassle, it’s almost always worth it.
  • And finally, when you’re in nature, be fully in nature. If you must bring your phone, turn it off and put it in your backpack. It’s amazing how refreshing even just a few hours outdoors without our screens is.

If you like what you read, I’d be honored if you followed me on Twitter @Bstulberg, where I share all of my writing and the latest on health and the science of human performance. You can also check out my forthcoming book, PEAK PERFORMANCE.