Holiday Stress Series: Spend Time Outdoors

This is the fourth post in a six-part series on managing stress during the holidays. So far in the series, I’ve written about what stress does to your body, how meditation helps and how you might want to put down your cell phone occasionally. If you haven’t read those posts, go back and check them out. Today I want to suggest another way to reduce stress—getting out in the good old outdoors. There is real science behind this, especially if you are recovering from cancer. The outdoors can be very healing as well as calming.

There are many health benefits to being outside. There are the obvious physical ones: fresh clean air in your lungs vs. circulated air-conditioning, Vitamin D on your skin from the sunshine, and cardiovascular benefits from the exercise you may be doing outside like walking, running, biking or playing tennis. But there are psychological benefits as well.

Whether you are spending your time by water or by trees, in the dessert or the mountains, every natural environment has a positive affect on your stress hormone levels and on your psyche.

Trees help stress

“The mountains are calling and I must go,” the naturalist John Muir famously wrote in 1872.

One 2007 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Forest Research, found that students who spent two nights in a forest had lower levels of cortisol — the stress hormone I wrote about in the first post in this series — than those who spent that time in the city.

In another 2010 study published in Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine, researchers found a decrease in both heart rate and levels of cortisol in subjects in the forest when compared to those in the city. “Stressful states can be relieved by forest therapy,” they concluded.

Even the view of nature out a window by office workers will lower stress and raise job satisfaction, according to another study published in Biomedical and Environmental Sciences in 2012.

Nature helps with brooding

As cancer survivors it is really easy to get down emotionally and being in nature can help that. Have you ever been pulled into endlessly dwelling on thoughts like “How did this happen to me?” This is called brooding, also known as morbid rumination, and it is when we can’t seem to stop thinking about all that is wrong with our lives. It is a broken-record that is not healthy or helpful and it can be a precursor to depression.

A recent study by Gregory Bratman, a graduate student at Stanford University, found that volunteers who had strolled along quiet, tree-lined paths were not dwelling on the negative aspects of their lives as much as they had been before the walk.

Water helps stress

Even if you’re just sitting outside, it can be beneficial and stress lowering. I find sitting next to water like the ocean or a lake to be very relaxing. There is something very soothing about the sound of the waves crashing on the shore. Researchers are finding that the sound of the waves has a meditative affect on our brains and is indeed relaxing. Not only that, but people are also relaxed by watching the rhythmic movement of the water and the waves.

“We are beginning to learn that our brains are hardwired to react positively to water and that being near it can calm and connect us, increase innovation and insight, and even heal what’s broken,” Wallace J. Nichols, a marine biologist, writes in Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do. He also says that water can induce a meditative state, which as I wrote in the second post of this series, has a very positive affect on stress levels.

Whether you go to the water or to the mountains, or somewhere in between, even a walk in the neighborhood, just get yourself outside. It will boost your mood, lower the cortisol levels in your body and reduce your stress levels this holiday season.


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