Spending more time outdoors is important to overall mental health and wellbeing

Here in the Four Corners region, the majority of us have experienced the benefits of nature firsthand. Perhaps it’s why some of us are here in the first place. It’s no secret that it’s healthy to get outside and breathe in the fresh air. In our increasingly digital and urbanized modern world, why do we — or should we — choose to venture out-of-doors? How can nature be a helpful remedy to any number of relational, emotional, mental, physical or spiritual challenges we face today?

Exploring the beautiful landscape of Southeast Utah.Scott DW Smith/ Imagesmith Photo
A Necessity for Development and Health

Nature benefits our health through even the most basic level of interaction: viewing it. Studies have shown that hospital patients with views of green space, flowers or water from their hospital bed experienced healthier outcomes in recovery time and anxiety levels than those who look out at a brick wall instead. Research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on Chicago’s public housing neighborhoods found that those with trees outside their windows or near their doorsteps knew and socialized more with neighbors, had a stronger sense of community and felt safer than those in buildings without trees. Another study from the journal Landscape and Urban Planning found that views of nature from the classroom had more positive impacts on both cognition and stress recovery for students than views of parking lots or urban settings.

Going a step further, research indicates that being in nature is beneficial mentally and physically. I’m particularly drawn to the work of journalist Richard Louv, who coined the term nature-deficit disorder in his book, Last Child in the Woods. Though not a formal medical diagnosis, this term describes the human costs of being more and more alienated from nature. Louv brings together new — and ever-expanding — research that links decreased time in nature with increased obesity, attention disorders and depression in childhood development, as well as increased harm to mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health. Through his research Louv concludes that, in essence, access to nature is a human right and a necessity for healthy development, emotional health and physical health for both children and adults.

What is so compelling about the findings above is that interaction with natural stimuli at any level will benefit our health. Many people are drawn to the Four Corners by the access to nature experiences such as hiking, rock climbing, kayaking, skiing and biking. Arguably, there are also a lot of people who live here simply for the view of the mountains, or the ability to walk to the river and listen to the rapids. A person does not have to move to Walden Pond like Henry David Thoreau to begin healing from nature. 

From Hyper-Stimulation to Soft Focus

So, what is it about being surrounded by the wilderness that helps us heal? And what happens when we move from simply viewing the trees from our windows to stepping foot in the forest? From a broad sense, how is it “healing” to be in nature? 

As humans living on this planet, we inherently face the stress of daily demands, pressures and expectations. If we don’t heal from those everyday stressors, reframe the everyday negative messages we receive and set aside the everyday distractions once in a while, our state of health will deteriorate. 

A view of Sleeping Ute Mountain.Max Seigal

Being in nature allows for “soft focus” of the brain. The nervous system begins to wind down from the “fight or flight” arousal state brought on by our hyper-stimulated modern world. We are stimulated by trees instead of billboards, bird song instead of sirens, sunlight and moonlight instead of blue light from an electronic device.

Our nervous systems relax within structure. Nowhere is there such structure of order, and homeostasis quite like that in nature. Plants and animals are interdependent. Water cycles through its various forms to bring life. On a micro level, the sun provides food to plants for photosynthesis and on a macro level, it steers the passing of days and changing of seasons. Life and death come and go. 

In my own personal experience and in my years of professional work with young people in the wilderness, nature is a source of harmony, renewal, strength and balance. These are all healing properties.

Nature’s Gift of Metaphor

Each person has a unique relationship with nature, informed by our upbringing and culture. We personify, project and interpret it differently. The trail you and I hike is an entirely different experience for each of us, based on what we’re grappling with, what we’re curious about and what remains unanswered within us. 

Regardless of our differences, one thing we can all strive toward is being open and inquisitive. Metaphor is absolutely everywhere in nature and we can all heal through it. What do we learn? What parallels do we draw to the world or our own lives?

Open Sky staff and students hold a session amidst the changing fall colors of the San Juan Mountains.Max Seigal

I notice a leaf on the ground. The leaf has veins; I have veins. It’s green now, attached to the branch, which is attached to the tree, which extends beneath the ground to the root system. I’m healthy when I’m connected to something bigger than myself; a community of support or a higher power. When the leaf falls, it will become brown; disconnected from that system. How does my health suffer when I disconnect from those connections?

I walk past the same tree every day. Throughout the year, I notice how the tree changes with the seasons. In turn, I am reminded that in life, there are seasons, darkness and the emergence of spring. There is the falling of leaves and branches, which then regenerate the soil from which I grow.

I see the stars at night and realize there’s something beyond me. I’ve been so focused on myself and my own problems. And that brief moment pulls me out of my self-loathing and shows me there is more to this world in this moment than what is distressing me. 

The gift of nature is that it is for everyone: it’s both poetic and concrete, creative and scientific. Nature always has a story to tell, a lesson to teach and a metaphor to unfold. It asks questions and answers them. By stepping away from life’s distractions and into nature, can we be curious and receptive to whatever emerges? Can we listen and follow our instincts? Can we allow nature to spark a spontaneous insight that will help us lead a fuller life; a life of healing?

DANNY FRAZER is the program director and co-founder of Open Sky Wilderness Therapy, a Durango-based outdoor therapeutic treatment program for struggling adolescents and young adults. The connection he feels to the wilderness has become his life’s calling, and he is dedicated to facilitating healing experiences in nature for teens, young adults and families.