d) crazy busy!
If your answer included some form of busy, you are not alone. Here in the US, we pride ourselves on our productivity. It’s good to be busy. We’ve developed a culture— if not even perhaps a cult—centered on the premise that being busy is a sign of importance, status, and success. In today’s world, it’s all to easy to strive to be busy, to over-commit, and to overextend ourselves thinking that it’s just what needs to get done.
But there’s a cost to all of this busy-ness: We are also stressed out of our minds. Americans report than their personal stress levels are higher than what they feel is a healthy level, with 1 in 5 adults reporting that they are under extreme stress. Likewise, only 37% of American adults feel like they are doing a very good job of managing their stress. And chronic stress can really take a toll on health, contributing to heart disease, depression, digestive ailments, obesity, substance abuse, and more.
So, how do we get off of this hamster wheel and find ways to restore our physical and mental health?
The surprisingly simple answer is: spend more time in nature.
There is an increasing body of scientific evidence that describes the immense value of nature on personal health and wellness. From everything from increasing your brain power to making you nicer to other people and even reducing risk of Alzheimer’s or dementia, the natural world is the solution to many of our modern problems. While there are many health benefits to spending time outdoors—or even indoors—with nature, the biggest benefits may be in reducing stress.
Scientists are still trying to understand exactly how nature relieves stress, but there is some evidence that our brains work differently in natural environments compared to built ones. Inside, we’re often trying to focus on one thing: we’re lasered into the computer, the TV, our phone, or whatever is in front of us. And, as you’ve probably experienced, hours and hours of this voluntary attention is exhausting. Meanwhile, outdoors, there are lots of distractions. Even when there doesn’t seem to be a lot to look at, our attention is constantly captured by our surroundings but this involuntary attention doesn’t require such intense focus and seems to give our brains a much-needed break. One recent study showed that a 90-minute walk in a natural setting reduced rumination—you know, that awful loop-da-loop of negative self-talk that can really bring you down?—but the same walk in an urban setting didn’t help. People just stayed stuck in their unpleasant thoughts.
But can we realistically find more time to be outside when we’re all super busy and stressed out? For most people, even finding 10 minutes to do one more thing feels absolutely impossible. It’s not realistic to expect people to find additional time on top of what you’re already doing—the work and school and chores and madness of everyday life—to also find time to spend more time outdoors.
Let’s just start by paying more attention to the nature that we already experience on a day-to-day basis.
To start with, it might just be the short walk between your car and a building. I bet you travel between a car and a building a few times a day, perhaps several. Repurpose those 30 seconds of travel from your car to your home, your work, the store, wherever as time with nature.
Slow your pace and take a few breaths. Picture the door that you’re walking to, but then expand that tunnel to include all your surroundings. Slowly look up, then down. Left, then right. What do you see? Feel? Smell? Instead of flitting from one inside space to another, pretend that you’re an explorer—or an alien—and taking in the view for the first time. Make a few observations about what is happening around you, and then the next time you’re traveling between those same doors, note what is different.
Just 5 minutes of viewing pictures of nature— as compared to built environments—has been shown to reduce stress levels. And those were just pictures. Can you imagine the benefits of looking at actual nature in the wild? The effects will be tremendous.