Feeling Anxious? Spend Time with Nature
Brian M. Murray, MS, IMH
“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
Have you ever wondered why people gravitate toward nature when they want to relax? A walk on the beach, sitting by the lake, laying on a blanket at the park, standing in awe of waterfalls, a river, a mountain view, walking a nature trail, camping, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, backpacking and the list goes on. How come this is so attractive? Look at music videos during church, rarely is there one that depicts scenery that does not involve nature as the setting. Coincidence? Hardly, there is a connection between our stress and anxiety levels and spending time in the great outdoors. While not true for everyone, most people marvel at nature, it’s peaceful and found living on its own terms. Sure, we attempt to bottle it up and put it into a zoo or theme park, but when we find it out in the wild there is something special that happens in those moments.
History and Research
Research and how nature impacts therapy goes back to the early 1990’s when a Psychologist by the name of Dr. Francine Shapiro noticed she felt better after taking nature walks and had a sense of feeling calmer. She followed up on it, conducting years of research to try and understand why this was happening. To make a long story short, this initial walk in the woods was the beginning of what is known today as EMDR, an acronym for Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. It is a common technique used to treat PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) which is a form of anxiety based on exposure to past traumatic events.
How It Works
When we are out in nature, the mind and our eyes scan, looking around in a controlled manner and they tend to focus on natural objects. In the process of looking around, we fixate on an object - even if only for a second - and then another and another while sweeping back and forth from left to right and back again. When we are experiencing high levels of anxiety, our eyes shift around in a very rapid motion in an uncontrolled way. This may also explain why we close our eyes to avoid stress, to take a moment to breathe and gain back some composure of our well being. Dr. Shapiro notes in her research what she discovered about herself that it is the controlled movement of the eyes, like mini multiple focal points, is what produces the relief from anxiety.
What is intriguing is that, for Dr. Shapiro, the whole process began with a simple act of relieving stress and relaxing her mind by taking a nature walk. Recently, some combat veterans who suffer from PTSD have also reported that time spent doing outdoor recreation activities helps relieve their symptoms. Popular outdoor themed recreation ventures designed to help veterans are beginning to spring up such as Heroes on The Water which is a kayak fishing organization designed to get veterans out and on the water fishing. Chances are there are plenty of local organizations whose sole purpose is designed to get people outdoors, and for good reason.
There are plenty of ways to get out into nature and one of the easiest can be to visit a local park and find a trail or path that has some of the key ingredients essential for relieving anxiety. Trees work very well as opposed to open fields. Trees give closeness and the opportunity to look around for even the smallest of wildlife. Slow down the pace and make it more of a stroll; this is not about being competitive or trying to burn off those next 2 inches off the waistline. Take some bread along to feed some ducks at a local pond. Avoid taking music or headphones as this can be a distraction from the therapeutic experience. Taking a pet along for the stroll can be good too, as both can benefit from being outside. Remember, the idea is to relax, enjoy being outside and just take it all in.