These are trying times. And a trying time is a perfect time to remind yourself why nature is good for you.
I would venture to guess that most of us are struggling to one degree or another right now.
Maybe you’re working from home with kids running around everywhere. (If this is you, check out TMM Team Member Jackie’s post on balancing working from home and outdoor parenting or Emily‘s post on juggling an outdoor life and busy family life!)
Maybe you’re mourning the loss of summer vacation plans or overwhelmed by the ongoing realities of racial injustice in our country.
Perhaps you’re missing face-to-face connections with friends and loved ones and struggling to make ends meet due to the state of our economy, or just exhausted from the tedium of parenting littles 24/7.
More than likely you can relate to at least some, if not all, of these stressors. And if, like me, you have underlying mental health concerns accompanying all of these uncontrollable external challenges, there have probably been days when you’ve felt like you’re barely keeping your head above water.
If so, please know that you’re not alone.
And if not, fantastic! You can tuck this post away for a rainy day or use it to help encourage a friend who might be feeling down.
Nature: An Invaluable Tool in Your Mental Health Toolbox
There are so many tools out there to help manage mental health and wellness, whether you’re struggling with chronic mental illness or just finding yourself in a particularly rough season of life.
If you have need for and access to formal tools like talk therapy, medication, and support groups, they can be absolutely life-saving and essential. And just to be clear, there is absolutely no shame whatsoever in needing and pursuing these kinds of tools.
Some tools, on the other hand, are more everyday rhythms that can be used either as part of a comprehensive treatment plan or as part of a regular proactive mental health regimen. These tools are less formal and often more accessible, like mindfulness and meditation, journaling, exercise, and time in nature.
I want to really focus in on that last one, because there are so many really good reasons why nature is good for you.
I am not ashamed to talk about the fact that I see a therapist regularly to help me stay on top of managing my mental health. Especially during these months of pandemic-induced stress and isolation, therapy has been critically important for me.
And I have also found, especially since becoming a parent, that nature is one of the most powerful everyday therapeutic tools I have at my disposal. I am at my best, both as a human being and as a parent, when I prioritize time in the natural world.
While I am certainly not a mental health professional, I do believe that my experience has been a valuable teacher. And it has taught me that nature is so, so good for me.
So without further ado, here are 6 powerful mental health benefits that my kids and I gain when we prioritize spending time outside.
For another perspective on the healing power of the outdoors, check out our interview with Chelsea Murphy of @she_colorsnature! We also love this article outlining ALL the benefits of nature on our bodies.
Why Nature is Good for You Reason #1: Spiritual Connection
I happen to be a deeply spiritual person, and the natural world has always had a profound way of making me feel connected to the vast reaches of God’s creativity, beauty, and grace. Some people find comfort in the mountains or the ocean or the night sky because they are reminded that their troubles are small in comparison to the grandeur of the universe.
Personally, I find infinite comfort in knowing that the same force that created such unfathomable beauty has also created my whole being – body, mind, and soul. When I find myself surrounded by beauty that takes my breath away, I am reminded that – even in my distress and struggle – I am part of this magnificent creation. My struggles may be small in comparison, but they matter just the same.
For my kids, nature provides countless opportunities to explore what it means to rely on each other – as human beings and as part of the larger ecosystem. Caring for the planet is an important element of our values system, and every time we talk about Leave No Trace principles or pick up garbage we are reminded that we are part of something larger than ourselves.
It nourishes all of our spirits and instills purpose in us when we remember that we all have a role to play in taking care of each other and the world around us.
Why Nature is Good for You Reason #2: Centering and Grounding
Even if you are not a spiritual person, however, there is no limit to the possibilities that nature holds for healing perspective. Most of us, when we’re taking the time to get outdoors, are also taking time away from the seemingly constant and anxiety-producing chatter of technology, social media, and screen-based sensory input.
There is something centering about listening to chirping birds and rustling leaves and rushing rivers. Being reminded of life’s natural rhythms has a way of grounding us in the present moment when we’re overwhelmed by past mistakes or future worries. Focusing on putting one foot in front of the other can be a meditation in and of itself!
I don’t know about you, but I can often sense when I need a parental “reset” because my patience has worn thin and I’ve let frustration get the best of me. Getting outside – even standing on the front porch for a few minutes – is almost always the quickest and most effective way for me to find my reset button and come back grounded and refreshed and ready to engage with my kids in a more positive manner.
Why Nature is Good for You Reason #3: Relational Connection
I love the way my kids become a team when we adventure outside together! It is obviously natural and expected for siblings to annoy, test, and bicker with each other, but it can also be really helpful for everyone to get a break from conflict-ridden interactions. Especially when we are out in unfamiliar territory, the playing field is leveled and there is a sense of solidarity that comes from working toward a common goal.
Whether that goal is completing a hike, getting to a certain landmark, finding the next patch of sword ferns, or biking to the top of a hill, we’re all in it together. Interconnectedness, empathy, compassion, and encouragement are so much easier to teach in these situations.
I’ve also found that some of the best conversations with my family and my friends have taken place on a trail. When we’re away from distraction, we have the ability to really focus on each other and we have time to process issues that may have been lingering in our minds. Honestly, this might be my favorite reason why nature is good for you, for me and for our families.
Check out TMM Team Member Ginny’s post on Getting Over Mom Guilt and Taking a Wilderness Mom-Cation if you need some inspiration to prioritize getting outside (safely, of course) with some girlfriends.
Why Nature is Good for You Reason #4: Stress Release
I don’t need to belabor the obvious physical benefits of exercise, fresh air, and rhythmic movement that often accompany intentional time outside. And you definitely don’t need to climb a mountain or go on a grand adventure to take advantage of these benefits! Daily walks or runs around our neighborhood have been absolute sanity-savers for me over the past several months since our state’s stay-at-home order was put into effect.
When we’re carrying stress, our bodies need a way to release that stress in order to regain equilibrium. We see this same principle at work in our kids, don’t we? When they’re cooped up, going through transitions, or experiencing a developmental leap, they often have insane amounts of energy to release.
And if they don’t release it, they tend to lose sleep and act out and lose control of their bodies. Some type of physical exertion is needed to complete the stress cycle, and nature provides endless opportunities for positive energy outlet.
I’m always amazed at the ways my kids keep themselves entertained when we’re outside in a natural environment. They build things with rocks, they climb and jump off of anything and everything, they throw things into the water to see how big of a splash they can make.
All of these are forms of release, whether they realize it or not! And if you’re willing to jump in with them, you may find the same is true for yourself. Physical exertion can take many different forms and is an excellent source of catharsis.
Why Nature is Good for You Reason #5: Building Perseverance and Confidence
It’s one thing to tell myself, and to tell my kids, that we can do hard things. It’s entirely another thing to stand at the bottom of a hill, look up together, and choose to put one foot in front of the other until we reach the top. The confidence that we all gain by breaking big goals into small action steps is immeasurable.
I can’t even count the number of times my kids have been struggling with something and we’ve called back to a memory from an outdoor adventure to tap into their awareness of their own resilience, strength, or perseverance.
Remember how you used to not be able to pedal up that hill on your own and now you don’t even have to think about it? You’re right…this is a tough problem, but remember how you figured out a way to hop across that creek by finding one big rock at a time? Can you believe you just made it all the way to the lake from way down there?
Why Nature is Good for You Reason #6: Body Positivity
For most of my life, I have struggled to love and accept my body as it is. When I was in high school, this struggle manifested itself as an eating disorder that landed me in the hospital after I nearly starved myself to death.
And while I recognize that not everyone takes body image issues to this extreme, it is a distressing reality that many women tend to see their bodies as enemies to be punished and controlled rather than friends to love and embrace and celebrate.
This may not be true for everyone, but the outdoors has brought enormous healing for me in terms of how I see and celebrate my body. When I realize that my legs can carry me to the tops of peaks, when I feel the exhilarating shock of cold as I dip my toes into an alpine lake, when I engage my senses fully in awe of vivid fields of wildflowers, my body feels like home. It feels like a companion that deserves to be nurtured, regardless of my muffin top or stretch marks or rubbing thighs.
Outdoor activity creates incredible opportunities to teach our kids to love and appreciate their bodies from an early age.
Look at how your feet push the pedals on your bike! Can you believe how many sounds your ears can hear in the forest? Aren’t you so glad your eyes can see to the tops of those mountains? Isn’t it cool how mud feels so squishy and slippery between your toes? I love how I can taste these delicious wild huckleberries!
Regardless of their level of ability, nature presents countless opportunities to celebrate what a child’s physical body can see and do and experience and enjoy.
How about you? How does time in the outdoors help you stay on top of your mental health and help your family stay mentally healthy? What benefits would you add to this list? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!
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