Even before the crisis of COVID-19, so many of us were already caught up in an exhausting cycle of work and family stress, compounded by the relentless pulse of digital technology. This was particularly true for Jocelyn, a 17-year old girl from Washington, D.C. who was featured in Nature: No App Required, a film short for TakeFive, a program of The TakeCare Campaign. This is a national initiative that offers tools to help people improve their own health and well-being through messages embedded in inspirational short films.
Jocelyn was feeling so constantly stressed and overwhelmed by her high school life, that she suffered frequent chest pain and headaches. She ended up in the Emergency Department and eventually was examined by her doctor, who found no acute medical condition to explain her symptoms. His diagnosis? Stress. His prescription? Nature!
More than ever, we’ve come to acknowledge the fact that getting outside can be beneficial to our health and well-being. But we don’t always realize that embracing nature doesn’t have to involve some exotic destination or a trip to the mountains for a day-long hike. There are many simple ways to connect to nature every day. Here’s just a few:
Look in Your Own Backyard
Jocelyn was “prescribed” to sit in her hammock in her father’s backyard for 60 minutes, once a week – with no electronics and no one bothering her. By doing this, Jocelyn found that just by slowing down, her stress was significantly reduced. She was able to discover new things about the world around her, like the fact that the clouds actually move!
Simple activities like being in your backyard, walking in your neighborhood, or riding your bike can provide similar benefits as time spent in rustic surroundings. This is also true for city-dwellers. Even if your backyard is an alley or a public park, just feeling the warmth of the sun, breathing in the crisp air, and taking in the sights around you is all it takes to enjoy nature.
Look for it Where You Least Expect it
Unfortunately, for some, being outside can actually be dangerous. But whether you live in an unsafe neighborhood, or you are at high risk for melanoma and need to protect yourself from the sun’s UV rays, there are still ways you can incorporate some nature into your life.
Simply opening your windows to let in fresh air is one way to welcome nature into your home. Growing plants or flowers indoors allows you to connect to the earth in a simple and nurturing way. Just stepping onto your front doorstep connects you with the outdoors. So if you think about it, every single time you step out of your house, even if it is just to check your mailbox or walk to your car, you are in that moment engaging in a part of the natural world. Nature is virtually always accessible, in countless forms. Each of us just needs to keep our eyes open for it and find our own way.
Embrace the Spiritual Side of Nature
Given we modern humans spent roughly 99 percent of our entire 200,000-year history living a nomadic life in close proximity to nature, we cannot deny the strong innate connection we have with the earth. It’s in our DNA – an instinctual part of us. The powerful force of nature brings us to a place of awe and humility, and causes us to pause, slow down and even feel calm. Taking a nature pause, even if just for a moment, can set in motion a parasympathetic nervous system response, (our rest and digest system) which becomes activated when adrenaline and cortisol production decreases and evokes a similar experience of quiet and calm that happens when we meditate. As a result, we can feel emotionally and spiritually connected to the earth. It is a strong, positive, and often existential response that is inside every one of us. And learning to embrace it can bring us peace.
Leave Your Expectations Indoors
Sometimes we may feel pressured to spend time outdoors because we know it’s “good” for us. See if it’s possible to let go of these “health benefit” expectations and just do what you enjoy for the fun or meaning of it. Every night before going to bed, I go outside into my front yard with my golden retriever “Goldie.” I turn my porch light off so we can both stand there in the darkness of the neighborhood under the stars, when everything is quiet. Sometimes during summer and fall months, we’ll both lie down on our backs on the grass next to each other for a while, and in the winter, I’ll make her little snowballs to eat. During these quiet moments looking up at the sky and breathing in the fresh night air, I could be anywhere, and I’m just in my front yard. I cherish this time with my dog, and it brings me peace. The fact that doing this is good for my mind and body is just an added benefit.
So when you do go outside, see if it’s possible to not expect anything in return. Feel the freedom of slowing down and appreciating what’s around you. Think about the feeling you get when looking at a sunrise. You don’t think, “I wish there was just a little more orange around that cloud.” Instead, you appreciate the beauty and embrace it just as it is. That’s what I encourage you to do today. Go outside, slow down, look around you, engage all of your senses, embrace nature’s awesome power, and allow it to embrace you back.
David Victorson, PhD, is an advisor on the film, Nature: No App Required, as a part of The Healthy US Collaborative’s TakeCare Campaign. He is a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor of Medical Social Sciences in the Feinberg School of Medicine, at Northwestern University. He is also the director of Integrative Oncology at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Survivorship Institute and Founder and Director of True North Treks, a young adult cancer support nonprofit that harnesses the big medicine of nature to help survivors and caregivers find direction through connection.