When was the last time you stepped away from the computer screen and went outside to appreciate the natural world around you?
With increasing rates of burnout and mental health issues, taking time for self-care is more important than ever. An accessible way to boost your mental well-being is simply spending more time outdoors.
To learn how spending time outdoors can benefit mental health and the best ways to do it, we spoke with CU Medicine psychologist Dr. Liz Chamberlain.
The mental health benefits of being in nature
Most of us have heard the term "get some fresh air" at some point in our lives. It turns out there are some very tangible and tactile benefits to being outside for our mental health, according to Dr. Chamberlain, who practices at CU Medicine Weight Management and Wellness at the CU Anschutz Health and Wellness Center in Aurora, Colorado.
"Studies show that spending time outdoors can help our thinking, emotions and even help people feel more socially connected to others," Dr. Chamberlain said.
A 2019 study by Marc Berman, Ph.D., and Kathryn Schertz showed the effects of green spaces on both children and adults. The correlational research showed improved cognitive development of children when green spaces were near their schools and improved self-control behaviors of children when green spaces were near their homes. In the same study, adults showed similar cognitive benefits when public housing units were near green spaces (Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 28, No. 5, 2019).
"I think these benefits come from giving your brain a break from going over thoughts repeatedly when you're able to engage in nature with your senses," Dr. Chamberlain said in reference to the study.
Other studies indicate that spending time in nature can lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone in our bodies, and improve self-reports of overall well-being (Scientific Reports, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2019).
One exercise Dr. Chamberlain recommends to patients wanting to practice mindfulness is the "5-4-3-2-1" technique, where they engage their senses with the outside world.
Here is how to do it in an outdoor space:
Name 5 things you see in your surroundings. Describe the visual details.
Name 4 things you can touch around you. Pay close attention to the textures and sensations.
Name 3 things you hear. Listen for subtle, natural sounds. Closing your eyes may help.
Name 2 things you smell. Breathe in the aromas around you and name the scents.
Name 1 thing you taste. It could just be the fresh air, a snack or sip of a beverage.
How to get started spending time outdoors for mental health
Finding time to get outdoors can be challenging for busy adults with commitments including work, family and appointments. Dr. Chamberlain wants people to know it doesn’t have to be such a big event every week to get outdoors for your mental health. “Two hours a week is all you need to get mental health benefits from being outside,” Chamberlain explained. These two hours per week can be spread out by 10-20 minutes a day outside, or if your schedule allows, you can take a couple of hours to visit somewhere like the Denver Botanic Gardens and be immersed in nature.
Dr. Chamberlain also stresses that although surrounding yourself in nature on a hike or in a forest is great, people can get the same benefits by visiting a local park or simply taking a walk in your neighborhood and noticing the natural world around you. She explained, “It’s all about setting the intention of going to a natural space and taking in things through your senses by being present. Don’t go into it with a big goal or rush through it.”
Reaching out for help
It’s never too late to ask for help with your mental health. The experts at the CU Medicine Weight Management and Wellness at CU Anschutz Health and Wellness Center and at the CU Medicine Psychiatry - Outpatient Clinic have resources for anyone seeking mental health help.
If you or someone you know is in need of urgent mental health support, call Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255 or text “talk” to 38255. You can also chat online through the Colorado Crisis Services website.
Dr. Liz Chamberlain is a licensed psychologist, Assistant Professor and the Faculty Wellness Officer in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. She practices at the CU Medicine Weight Management and Wellness Clinic located in the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center.