Cleanse the Mind

The indoors have a certain appeal during the summer months: a fridge full of chilled fare, screens of all sort, and hardworking AC units. Yet just outside the front door of your home or office lies a tool for managing stress, chipping away at anxiety, and pressing pause on negative self-talk. The tool? Mother Nature. 

Studies have underscored the fact that immersing yourself in nature is good for both body and mind. Wanting to dig deeper into the science behind that, we checked in with Roper St. Francis Healthcare affiliated licensed professional counselor and family therapist David Bethany, who broke down some of the biggest mental health boons of being outdoors:

➊ It quiets ruminating thoughts. A 2015 Stanford study found that people who took a 90-minute walk outdoors experienced decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain where rumination occurs. “Rumination is when you fall into the grip of nagging, usually negative or worrisome thoughts, or maybe replay some scenario over and over in your mind, like ‘I should’ve said this,’ or, ‘I should’ve done that,’” Bethany explains. Such thoughts can contribute to a depressed mood and even be a risk factor for depression.

➋ It begets mindfulness. Studies have found that practicing mindfulness—the state of being out of one’s thoughts and more consciously aware of what’s happening around you—can immediately boost your mood and, if practiced often, can improve mental health. But in our ever-busy world, it can be hard to tap into this tool. “We live in such a civilized society—we wander around in a world that is almost completely fabricated by us,” says Bethany. “But the natural world is not—it’s outside of our control. Mindfulness is much more easily accessible when you’re surrounded by a world that you didn’t create.”

➌ It makes room for opportunity. “We spend so much time in our head, thinking through our own lives, work, joys, and struggles. Being immersed in nature switches us from an orientation around ourselves to an orientation outside of ourselves,” he says, adding that when that happens, there is new space for things like creativity and empathy to foster. 

TRY IT! David Bethany often recommends this mindfulness practice to his patients: Move outdoors for a short walk. As you stroll, look around, not letting your eyes rest too long on any one thing. Your goal is to be hyper-aware of what’s in front of and around you, almost as if you’re trying to memorize everything you see. Listen for sounds (planes flying, birds chirping, cars passing, insects buzzing), sniff for scents (flowers, pluff mud, laundry from a house nearby), study the details in ordinary objects around you (the brightness of that dandelion, the curious shape of a stick on the sidewalk, the height of that crane), and pay attention to the wind, sunlight, or rain touching your skin.