For Eden Cheng, owner of WeInvoice, success came at the cost of her well-being. She says that founding her company was rewarding, but extremely stressful, and her burden only grew with time.
The stress became so intense that Cheng checked herself into a hospital for a few days. Doctors advised her to find ways to reduce her stress and lower her blood pressure, because if these factors remained elevated it could lead to major health problems. Cheng had heard of exercises and therapies that could help, but the strategy she chose was time in nature.
Cheng started with daily walks into a forested area near her home, and her stressed out symptoms began to fade. She found these regular strolls in the woods gave her the time and space she needed to face all the pressures and responsibilities of running a new business.
“I realized that I was able to think much more calmly and clearly about what to do next in my own personal and work life,” she said. “Gazing at the ancient redwoods and seeing the birds nesting among the trees gave me a better perspective on my own circumstances and reminded me that life is bigger than just my own work.”
Cheng says simply appreciating the wildlife in her neighborhood while she walks her dog can refresh her mind and spirit. She still makes time for daily nature walks, especially after a long, hard day.
Cheng’s experience isn’t unique.
Science Affirms What We’ve Long Known
Researchers have repeatedly documented the benefits of nature experiences, something human beings have treasured ever since the industrial revolution started to pull us into the grind of urban living. Since the 1990s, Japanese researchers have been studying the health effects of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku). It’s a fancy name to describe a peaceful walk in the woods, but research reveals that this simple practice has the capacity to decrease depression, fatigue, anxiety, and confusion.
Counselor, mental health educator, and author Tanya J. Peterson mentions a long list of other studies that underscore the tangible mental health benefits of nature. For example, researchers at Stanford and Yale both conclude that spending time in nature can help us heal and maintain wellness.
“Immersion in nature, whether it’s a walk along a lakeshore, a hike in the woods, or a stroll around your own yard, has been shown to directly affect changes in the brain and nervous system,” Peterson said. “These physiological changes reduce our body’s stress response, lower anxiety, and boost mood and attention span.”
Of course, you don’t need an expert to tell you that nature has a calming effect. Compared to the pressures, worries, and hectic pace of the modern world, an open field, or even a small garden offer us a more soothing rhythm to absorb our attention. But it only works if we make time for it.
“Personally, I find that for my own mental health and stress management, spending time in nature is a necessity rather than a luxury,” said Peterson. “I’ve lived with anxiety most of my life, and I’ve found that getting outside for a hike, a simple casual stroll, or kayaking in a nearby lake induces a deep sense of calm.”
Peterson explains that a dose of nature doesn’t eliminate what makes her anxious. But it gives her a necessary pause that helps her regroup so she can better handle the problems that come her way. This pause helps mentally, and physically too.
“I also have several autoimmune and digestive disorders, largely caused by stress, and getting outside daily is an important part of my treatment plan,” she said. “Connecting to the energy of the natural world and appreciating the beauty gives me a different perspective on life and expands my focus beyond my symptoms. Nature is a constant, refreshing reminder that there is more to life than stress and symptoms of illness.”
Into Our Unnatural Indoor Lives
The idea of nature as healer and teacher goes way back. In several ancient cultures, the forces of the natural world provide an example to emulate. In traditional Chinese medicine, for example, the ultimate goal is for the patient to embody the same sense of balance, strength, and calm found in the natural world.
Of course, for our ancestors, nature was a fact of life. Back then, everyone lived closer to the land as a matter of consequence. Today, we live in a culture far more interested in cyber space than green space. We have conveniences and comforts our ancestors could never have dreamed of, yet stress, anxiety and depression are at an all time high.
According to Peterson, Americans on average spend over 90 percent of their waking lives indoors, and most of that indoor time is spent with the biggest influence of our age: technology. It may seem harmless, but too much tech time takes a toll.
“Excessive indoor and screen time can negatively affect our total well-being, both physical and mental health,” Peterson said.
Getting Outside—and Into Ourselves
Nature can provide a perfect getaway from the technology that now rules the world. According to Ouriel Lemmel, a CEO of a small business (WinIt) who works remotely, he spends “a ridiculous amount of time in front of a screen.” He tries to counteract this excessive screen time by squeezing some of the great outdoors into his busy schedule.
“Usually, these are long weekend backpacking trips that allow me to turn my phone off and turn my attention to the natural world. I find that when I do get back to the office I am more energized, kinder, and more creative,” Lemmel said.
For regular health maintenance, and to remind himself of the world that exists outside his devices, Lemmel takes daily walks.
“Taking a walk mid-day gives me the chance to look up at the trees and remember that the world is a real place that exists out there,” he said. “I remember that the world is a living, breathing entity and that I too am a part of this ecosystem. My breath mellows, and the stress I had from work lessens as I look at the bright beautiful world around me.”
Just a short getaway can make a big difference. Business development leader Stacey Kane says nearly all her work is online. She takes short nature breaks to balance it out.
“I feel eye strain and sometimes I get dizzy. When this happens, I pause, go outside, and just look at the trees. This might be simple but it helps a lot. After just 10 minutes of staring at all the greens, I feel relaxed and don’t feel any strain anymore. This is my little way of seeking my dose of the natural world,” Kane said.
Small doses of nature can be restorative, but larger doses can be transformative. Farmer and restaurant owner Erin Wade says her love for the natural world has been a pivotal factor in shaping her career, but she still struggles with the pressures of running a business. Six months after opening a restaurant in Austin, Texas, Wade was burned out from all the travel and screen time necessary to get the project going. To recover, she took her first vacation in years. She says the lessons from that trip still resonate today.
“It turned into a modern-day Thoreau moment,” Wade said. “I didn’t look at a screen once for 30 days. I swapped my smartphone for a basic flip phone which I’ve used ever since. It was a strange and profound experience. I learned about myself and our world in terms of how technology affects our brains and attention, how it influences human interaction, our capacity for empathy and our overall happiness.”
Making Time for Nature
Of course, you can still get some of the benefits of being outside, such as fresh air and sunshine even if you’re scrolling through your phone or worrying about your problems. But to make the most out of your nature visit, Peterson recommends approaching it mindfully.
“That means simply paying attention to your surroundings, taking them in with all your senses. It allows you to experience the natural world completely, with your whole self,” she said.
“Otherwise, if you’re outdoors but stuck in your mind thinking and ruminating about problematic situations, your body is in nature but your mind is not. You’ll gain more and find more joy when you’re mindfully immersed in the nature that surrounds you.”
Setting your mind to the rhythm of nature can resonate through your being, even altering your perception of time. Gaby Pilson, a mountain guide and outdoor educator says she likes to get outside because, compared to the hustle and bustle of daily life, nature “slows life down dramatically.”
“In my mind, this disconnect between the sensation of time when we’re inside and outside comes down to the notion of stress,” Pilson said. “[Inside] everything operates on a schedule. Outside, things just happen.”
Pilson offers a few tips to get people out. First, commit to a daily schedule. The session may be short, but the influence of a routine can help you stay motivated.
Tip two is to look local. It would be nice if we all lived near some majestic example of natural beauty, but not everyone has access to forests, lakes, and canyons. However, we can still have some access to nature’s power if we’re willing to look.
“We often think that outdoor adventures can only happen in far-off places. But, there’s plenty of adventure to be had outside, even if you live in the middle of a city. Seek out local green spaces, parks, and bike trails where you can get some fresh air near your home,” Pilson said.
Finally, think outside the box as you tailor your experience to fit your interests. If walking outside seems a little dull, get a bike. If you seek more of a focus, consider bird watching or stargazing. The goal is to immerse yourself.
“Adventure comes in many forms,” Pilson said.
This article was first published in Radiant Life Magazine.