We are in unprecedented times. With COVID-19 spreading rapidly across the world, we are being asked to stay home and shelter in place, except for essential duties. What does this mean for those of us who feel the call of the outdoors and love the feeling of nature pumping through our veins? What about those of us for whom nature is essential? While we may not be able to meet up with our favorite run group or get the girls together for a weekend hike, take heart. You see, nature is everywhere. And, we can still reap the mental health benefits of the outdoors while following the safety precautions and guidelines given to us by national health institutes and our local governments during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Benefits of Nature on Our Mental Health
The research is clear. As crystal clear as your favorite lake tucked away in the mountains. Spending time in green spaces improves our mood by increasing emotions like joy, happiness, and peace while decreasing anger, sadness, and anxiety. Exposure to nature decreases rumination, that pesky friend that keeps us stuck in a cycle of unhelpful worry void of any real attempts at problem-solving. Time spent in the outdoors also increases our attention, focus, and concentration. It helps us work together as a team, because it has been shown to increase unity and cohesion. Listening to nature sounds, like birds and water, aids in relaxation, actually lowering our levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. While it relaxes the body, however, nature sounds also improve our attention and reaction time. Nature exposure has also been shown to improve self-esteem. Nature really is the ultimate one-stop-shop if you’re looking for optimal health and wellness. *See TS article on Forest Bathing
Finding Nature Where You’re At
We are currently being asked to only leave our homes for essential reasons, such as grocery shopping and medical care. In some parts of the world there are restrictions on outdoor exercise. In a pandemic, the likes of which we have never seen in our lifetimes, how do we access nature while respecting the health of our neighbors and keeping ourselves and our families safe? Can we practice social distancing and still spend time outdoors?
Fortunately, nature can be found most everywhere. If you have a yard, voila, nature. If you have a patio, balcony, porch, or window that looks out on a grassy yard, green shrubbery, and trees, you have access to nature. Even looking at a picture of a nature scene has been proven to have positive effects on our mood. While we are likely craving the feeling of the trail beneath our feet or the brush of a shrub against our legs, we can still reap the benefits that nature has to offer by finding it in our own backyards.
Tips for Families
Many of us are managing kids at home in the midst of this pandemic and all the uncertainties that it has created. Unlike summer and other school breaks, children are still expected to participate in online courses and get their work done during the day. They can’t physically connect and play with their friends, getting the respite from their families that they usually have. Children, like adults, may not know how to cope with this new reality. What’s a parent to do when you are trying to get your kids to help their siblings, pitch in with household chores, and frankly, just get along? Answer: you guessed it. Get into nature!
Because we know that spending time outdoors can build unity, cohesiveness, and even self-discipline, have the kids walk through a green space if they are able to. Take a brief stroll through the neighborhood or around the apartment complex. Have them flip through pictures of nature scenes and pick out their favorites. Then, ask them to work together to get their jobs done.
Tips for Teleworkers
Speaking of jobs, many of us have been sent home to work, a situation that can be either liberating or anxiety-provoking. If you are finding your home environment to be distracting and chaotic, take a nature break. Studies have shown that even a short amount of time outdoors can have restorative effects on the brain. If you notice your attention wandering during the workday, nature can help you refocus your attention and concentration. What’s more, spending a longer amount of time outdoors (think a morning or post-work stroll) can decrease worry. If you are having trouble winding down in the evening and disconnecting from work to get restful sleep, early morning exposure to natural light is ideal.
Using Nature During the Pandemic
Will nature be the panacea we are all looking for? Probably not, because, honestly, there isn’t one. Things will likely get worse before they get better. What nature does provide, however, is a reprieve and recharge. Spending time focused on nature, however that looks for us right now, shifts our attention from the non-stop feed of sad and scary news. It gives us a break. But more than that, when we harness the power of nature, we can actually recharge our weary and fatigued minds, building the resiliency we will need to get through the days ahead.