Nature has the power to heal. It’s an innate truth many of us know, but one which is hard to practice in the modern world. So many of us work in front of computer screens and then leave work, only to scroll socials or watch Netflix. In fact, Americans spend over 93% of their time inside! At the same time, we’re seeing higher levels of anxiety than ever before.
Luckily, there is a natural way to reduce mild to moderate anxiety and decrease the amount of time we spend indoors: get outside! If you suffer from anxiety, getting your nature dose can also be a great tool to accompany cognitive behavioral therapy, medication, or other mental health treatments. But don’t take my word for it–I recently sat down with 13 experts across a variety of health-related professions to learn about the power of nature in their lives.
- Kassondra Glenn, LMSW, psychotherapist
- Charles van Rees, Ph.D, researcher at the University of Georgia
- Rachel Scott, MD
- Valentina Dragomir, Psychotherapist
- Erena DiGonis, LCSW-R, CSW-G, Licensed Psychotherapist
- Krista Elkins, BA, RN, CFRN, NRP, CCP-C Registered Nurse (RN)
- Chaye McIntosh, Clinical Director
- Kara Nassour, licensed professional counselor
- Lana Lipe, LCSW, Therapist
- Keresse Thompson, LCSW, Therapist
- Sarah Bick, Nervous System Coach and Somatic Practitioner
- Beth Hawkes, RDN, Founder of Nurse Code
- Kristen Casey, PsyD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Overview on Anxiety, Stress, and Nature
If you feel like time in nature improves your mental health, you’re right. In fact, the science overwhelmingly points to a positive connection between increased time in nature and improved mental health.
A 2014 meta-review looked at a variety of studies on mental health and living in green or urban spaces. The researchers concluded those who lived in green spaces had more indicators of good mental health than those in urban settings. Another meta-review from 2019 found a positive correlation between time in nature and improved cognitive and emotional health, as well as other indicators of good mental health.
If we look more specifically at anxiety, there’s also evidence time in nature halts rumination, negative thought patterns which are especially prevalent in folks with anxiety. A recent Stanford study showed significantly reduced rumination after a 90-minute walk in nature compared to a 90-minute walk through an urban environment.
While we can discuss the scientific benefits in nature for anxiety more (and we have in past blogs), today I wanted to showcase the stories of how nature has helped researchers, medical professionals, and others who work in fields related to health and science. Nature has the power to improve your mental health–and these stories showcase that!
Hiking Reduces Stress and Anxiety
“As a mental health professional, I often find myself carrying my clients’ stress and anxiety in addition to my own. This makes spending time in and connecting with nature particularly important. I prefer to hike or camp on my own so I can take deep breaths in fresh air, ground myself, and spend time in silence. Research shows that being in nature is an effective way to reduce many forms of mental health symptoms, and it definitely works for me!”
-Kassondra Glenn, LMSW, psychotherapist and consultant to Diamond Rehab Thailand
Nature Improves Work and Life
“From my own perspective, I have been dealing with a lot of pressure and stress from a challenging career path as an academic. Between my field research and the temporary character of jobs for early-career scientists, I have had to move frequently and rarely have more than a year in one place. At the same time, I’m under pressure to be publishing papers, applying for grants, doing new research, and looking for the next job all at once. This amounts to working a lot of weekends and having work-weeks that tally well above 60 hours.
“That stress has really gotten to me at times, and I have been really surprised how much my nature-study hobbies have helped me cope with it. As a naturalist, I am always looking to study plants, fungi, birds, insects, whatever I can find out of doors. Whether my naturalist trips took me on long hikes or on short strolls through an urban park, I would quickly feel my anxiety fade into the background when I found a leaf beetle or heard a familiar birdsong. I often feel my mood lift considerably after only a few minutes, and my head feels clearer; my inner dialogue is less chaotic. I notice that if I take walks like this a few times a week, I am generally more collected and can make decisions, pay attention, and concentrate better even in my rapid-fire workplace.”
-Charles van Rees, Ph.D, researcher at the University of Georgia and author of Gulo in Nature
Nature Relaxes the Mind and Body
“Spending time with nature can be very calming. With only the sounds of leaves rustling or birds chirping, nature has its way of calming the mind, body, and soul. Visually, the green leaves can relax tired eyes so you feel calmer and more relaxed. This then translates to less anxiety. Nature also helps in grounding your mind. Since you can feel, hear, see, touch, and taste nature’s components, your mind is easily grounded to the present and the reality. This takes your mind away from anxiety and such mental health troubles. With that, spending time with nature really helps anxiety.”
-Rachel Scott, MD at National TASC LLC
Nature Provides Opportunities for Mindfulness
“For me being in nature is an opportunity for mindfulness. It is a chance to be in the present moment and appreciate all of the simple things that often go unnoticed: colors, textures, sounds, smells. When we are caught up in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. Nature helps me reduce my stress and feel calmer overall.”
-Valentina Dragomir, Psychotherapist and Founder of PsihoSensus Therapy and PsihoSensus Academy
Use Your Senses in Nature
“I am a huge fan of using nature in therapy. It is free and accessible for the vast majority of clients. Two easy suggestions for people struggling with anxiety. Using mindfulness to tune into all the small positive things that we can observe from the window or outside. Looking at the color of the trees and the sound of the birds. It helps to broaden your focus outward and is calming. I also get great results from sit and stare. I have encouraged clients to gaze softly at fire or water while outside. Have you ever noticed that staring at the ocean waves or a lake is inherently relaxing? This regulates the default network in your brain. For people that have the time and physical ability, longer nature walks are also great for the nervous system.”
-Erena DiGonis, LCSW-R, CSW-G, Licensed Psychotherapist
Time Outdoors Can Be Your Meditation
“I have been in Emergency and Critical Care Medicine for 20 years. The past couple of years with COVID-19 have been particularly challenging. I have the luxury of living in a place that supports my need to spend quality time in the great outdoors. Just outside my doorstep are world-class mountains, rivers, and valleys. My meditation is spending my time outside of work in nature. My stress and anxiety are healed when I go hiking, skiing, mountain biking, kayaking, even camping. Honestly, a simple drive away from the hustle and bustle of town and into nature is nurturing for me.”
-Krista Elkins, BA, RN, CFRN, NRP, CCP-C Registered Nurse (RN) Specialist at Healthcanal
The Power of Daily Nature Time
“As an addiction counselor, I come across many people who are broken and drowning in self-doubt. I would be lying if I said that doesn’t have any effect on my own mental health. But it is my duty to be strong for my patients. Therefore, I have found sitting and being surrounded by nature helps a lot.
“Every day I sit in a park for 1 hour and turn my phone off. I look all around me and take in each and every tiny detail I can. It makes me realize that I am just a very small particle in a wide universe and my stress is even smaller than I am. I look at the clouds and I feel a wave of peace sweep over me and when I look at the green grass my eyes just feel as if I have never shed a single tear from them
“In short, nature gives me hope, a sense of calmness, and a feeling that whatever happens, happens for a reason. So there is no place for stress and anxiety in my life.”
-Chaye McIntosh, Clinical Director at ChoicePoint
Nature Improves Mood
“Exposure to nature consistently has a positive impact on my mental health and that of my clients. I have personally noticed improved mood, energy, and relaxation when I regularly take walks in green neighborhoods and parks. The exercise that comes with exploring nature also decreases my anxiety.
“Looking at plant life and bodies of water reduces our blood pressure and increases feelings of calmness. Sunlight not only aids in improving low moods linked to winter and lack of light, but it also makes our bodies produce Vitamin D, which helps reduce depression.”
-Kara Nassour, licensed professional counselor at Shaded Bough Counseling
Walking in Nature and Using All Five Senses
“For me, I truly believe in the power behind the mind-body connection to improve our anxiety and stress.I often use mindfulness-based techniques outside to help with managing my stress and anxiety. I spend a lot of time walking, which helps release stress from my body. I also take the time to sit on my porch and notice the environment around me using all five of my senses. That brings me back into the present moment and allows me to focus on the here-and-now. I study the science behind the benefits using nature to improve our mental health, which is important. However, I think that it’s most important to check in with my body and notice the positive changes I’mexperiencing in that moment with my mood.”
-Lana Lipe, LCSW, Therapist at HonuTherapy
Nature Reduces Cortisol Levels
“Spending time in nature can help not only relieve anxiety but also help with physical elements such as information. There have been numerous studies that have shown the benefits of spending time in nature and grounding. The earth has a natural frequency that aligns with ours. This helps us center our alignment, practice mindfulness, and reduces cortisol levels. Cortisol is the main stress hormone that is released that can cause anxiety. Spending time in nature also boosts our dopamine levels and our endorphins. These are what makes us feel good, what tells us that we did a good job, makes us feel accomplished. And makes us feel more importantly happier.”
-Keresse Thompson, LCSW, Therapist
Little Ways to Spend More Time in Nature
“Being in nature, or even looking at scenes of nature, activates the parasympathetic nervous system in our bodies. This can typically reduce anger, stress, anxiety and increase pleasant feelings.
“And not just emotions – it also benefits your physical wellbeing – reducing muscle tension, heart rate, blood pressure, and the production of stress hormones like cortisol.
“Little things you can try:
- Notice any green spaces around you, during lunchtime, and look at the types of leaves, flowers that can be found there
- Nurture a plant at home, to experience Ecotherapy for yourself
- Take up tree hugging! Notice how it feels over 1 minute of hugging. I started tree hugging during covid and I developed deeper experiences over time. Now when I hug, I physically feel my body ‘drop’ into a softer calmer
place within moments.
- Take your shoes and socks off and stand on the ground, ideally grass, but even concrete can have a grounding effect.
- Take a walk through the park on the weekend, and look at all the green.”
-Sarah Bick, Nervous System Coach and Somatic Practitioner
Nature Keeps Us Present
“Nature helps us be present in a world that is so often filled with stress and anxiety, that spending time in nature can provide relief. The natural sounds of animals chirping or water droplets falling on leaves free your mind from unpleasant thoughts while filling it up again every day with new life-giving oxygenating air. The great outdoors also encourages healthy physical activity, which is a major factor in battling depression. Not only does exercise increase your energy levels and make you physically stronger; but it also makes you feel happier as well!”
-Beth Hawkes, RDN, Founder of Nurse Code
Nature Walks Are A Relaxing Break
“Nature has personally helped me with anxiety and stress in so many ways. I wish I could tell you all of them! Nature walks have been an integral part of my life and have helped me gain perspective when I’m very stressed. It’s a tool for me to gain perspective, have a break, and do something for myself. The stress will always be there, and so will nature, so leaning into nature has helped me ground myself in ways that I can’t necessarily achieve indoors.”
-Kristen Casey, PsyD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist