January 10, 2020
Written by Mike Ellsworth
New Year’s can be a wonderful time full of resolutions and goals. Sadly, most of these attempts for personal betterment go unfulfilled. Why does this so often happen? Well, for me, it is because I am trying to do something in my life that I don’t like to do, to make an aspect of my life more positive. For example, I want to sleep better at night, so I want to enforce a bedtime with no screens after a certain hour. But, what often happens is that I want to stay up late to binge watch Big Bang Theory again… So, I miss out on the opportunity for betterment. I am trying to get positive effects with seemingly negative action. What if you were able to seek positive effects with a positive action?
Well, I’ve got one for you. Set up a New Year’s resolution right now to spend more time outdoors. Being outside is fun, relaxing and great way to create new experiences for yourself. I’ve been doing a lot of research lately and there are several studies out there proving that a simple positive action (15 minute hike through your wooded neighborhood) can create some amazingly positive effects in your life.
For hundreds of years, the outdoor enthusiast has known about these benefits. People often use positive phrases like “it helps me de-stress or feel better”, “it really encourages me”, or “helps me to disconnect and clear my head” to describe their natural experiences. More and more academic research is verifying those statements! There is continual research being done that reinforces the idea that spending time in nature can be helpful in treating symptoms such as anxiety, high blood pressure, insomnia and depression.
As little as 20 minutes spent in nature has been shown to help in the following areas:
Anxiety and Stress
The Great Outdoors Lab is a collaborative effort to demonstrate that nature can have clinical uses in the treatment of anxiety and stress disorders. “We hope to make public lands part of a common healthcare prescription,” says Sierra Club Outdoors director Stacy Bare. Stacy is an Iraq War veteran who has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The research alliance has been working with military groups to show how spending extended time in nature can help inspire awe and are trying to increase our understanding of how nature deeply affects our emotional and mental state.
Yuma University research Yoshifumi also is one of the scientists that has been working on studying the effects that nature can have to decrease stress levels. His research has shown that just a 15 minute walk in the woods decreases cortisol (primary stress hormone) 16%, drops blood pressure 2% and lowers your heart rate 4%! I can’t think of any over-the-counter medication with those kind of instant results. It is no wonder that nature therapy is being used more and more as treatment and preventative medicine to help patients to unwind and process stressful experiences.
Insomnia and other Sleep Problems
There are several reasons why we struggle to get enough zzz’s on a nightly basis. Whether your root is too much caffeine, excess amounts of screen time or struggles with anxiety; a simple trip into nature may act as a helpful cure. These triggers all act against our circadian rhythm, or internal clock. This makes it far more difficult for us to fall asleep, so we end up staring at the ceiling while our head sits on the pillow.
I don’t know about you, but when I go camping and we are sitting around the campfire telling stories and making jokes, eventually someone will stand up, rub their eyes and say “well…it’s getting late, I’m gunna head to bed”. Then someone else unexpectedly looks up from their watch and exclaims that it is only 9:30pm! Usually everyone laughs and it leads into another long conversation about the great nights of sleep we get while camping.
The data backs this up. Even just a few nights in the woods, away from unnatural light, can set your internal clock back several hours. Getting you right back into sync with the rising and the setting sun. Your body begins to release melatonin naturally to help you slip into more restful nights.
Provides Opportunity for Positive Encouragement and Self-Reflection
It is no secret that the Japanese culture is into self-reflection and finding methods to seek peace in their lives. We have all heard of Zen gardens, various meditation practices and different martial arts techniques focused on self-awareness and inner peace. But the Japanese government has spent a lot of resources in a new path towards peace. “Forest Bathing” or “shinrin-yoku” has been a regular practice in Japan for years. It is becoming more and more popular. It is said that it “has the power to counter illnesses including cancer, strokes, gastric ulcers, depression, anxiety and stress.” The Japanese government is so fully invested in these studies that they devoted 62 forests across Japan and are maintained and accredited by government entities.
As Christians, we understand that God created the heavens and the earth. When we revel in his creation, we revel in his glory. When we are comforted by nature, we are being comforted by Him. I often think of this while I hike and spend time outdoors. Whether it is the rushing of a West Virginia river, the smell of fresh rain or the pleasing bark from my dog as he rolls in the grass. These are gifts that the Lord provides for me to enjoy, to help me know that I am loved, valued and cared for. I also feel the awe of his might and power as I look up the trunk of an oak tree that has been standing for hundreds of years. I feel that Christ-focused forest meditation points us to God and scripture is full of individuals seeking wilderness for rest and guidance, including Jesus himself.
So, how to do it? That is important. We can’t just expect to grab our keys, wallet and head outdoors. You will get out what you put into your outdoor experiences.
This semester, we are offering a new type of event. On the first Monday of every month, our staff will meet up at Snowflex for a regular hike. This hike will be focused on wellness. They may include some materials for reflection, silent moments for prayer or just a time to get away and unwind during the week. These “Wellness through Wilderness” hikes are a great opportunity for those who feel tired, alone or burned out. Come visit with us, we want to encourage wellness in your life.
If you want to learn more about how spending time in nature is beneficial to your mental and physical health, be sure to read “The Nature Fix” by Florence Williams. I am planning on reading it this month and it comes highly recommended.