Being outside is great for your mental health, unless you take it too far
By Ilana Newman. When Ilana Newman isn't writing about the outdoors, she's trying not to take herself too seriously outside. You can find her exploring the desert or the mountains around the four corners region (Diné, Ute, and Pueblo land) which she currently calls home.
Spending time outside is one of my favorite things in the world. When everything feels hard, sunshine and movement always turn the world right, teaching me to trust my body and coaxing me to trust my mind.
Some of my best relationships have also come out of time spent outside. Doing things in nature creates space for hard conversations and deep bonding with other people. It can bring them together — often more easily than our technology crowded, constantly distracting indoor spaces. Nature is regenerative and healing in so many ways.
But in other ways, it can sometimes feel like there isn’t space for everyone in certain outdoor communities, which can present as closed off or exclusive. For example, if your relationship to the outdoors involves daily walks, sitting outside or working in your garden, you may not relate to those who want to ski off cliffs or summit huge mountains. Or if you’re a beginning skier or climber, you may feel pressured to push yourself in unhealthy ways to match those who are more experienced. In my experience, these potentially exclusive and competitive outdoor pursuits can have negative effects on people's well-being too.
While there is space for everyone to reap the mental health benefits of the outdoors, I was curious to explore the two sides of this topic, especially how to avoid getting caught in that competitive trap.
To start, we know that there are many beneficial qualities to being outside. Studies like this one from the American Psychological Association, have scientifically proven that even limited access to green space can help with attention, happiness, and stress reduction.
There are also easily accessible ways the outdoors can be beneficial to your mental health without any extreme performance or benchmarking.
- Go for a walk — lose the headphones!
- Meditate outside — read on to find a simple mindfulness exercise.
- Learn a new sport! And let go of all expectations to be good at it.
- Go for a run — but don’t worry about how fast you can go.
- Hike in a beautiful spot — bring a picnic lunch!
- Jump into a body of water.
- Get a group of friends (new or old) together to do something outside.
- Just do what feels good — stop putting so much pressure on yourself!
The outdoors can also be beneficial to mental health in a more formalized context. I talked to Sebastiaan Zuidweg, clinical director and therapist for Open Sky Wilderness Therapy, who uses time outside in the wilderness as a therapy tool for clients on a regular basis.
“We take all of those global stressors away and help [the clients] land in an environment in the wilderness that is really about community, relationship, holistic food, healthy sleep, and health exercise,” says Sebastiaan.
He says that focusing on setting the intention for your time outside is the key to finding positive mental health growth in the outdoors. Focusing on gratitude, appreciation, balance, and connection can help you find all the benefits that time outside can bring to your life.
Sebastiaan shared a simple outdoor mindfulness exercise to help alleviate stress, anxiety, feelings of disconnection, and ruminating negative thought patterns. Go outside (in your backyard, on a walk, or anywhere you feel comfortable), take a few deep breaths, and begin.
- Find 5 things you can hear
- Find 4 things you can feel
- Find 3 things you can see
- Find 2 things you can smell
- Find 1 thing you can taste
Sebastiaan is encouraging, saying that “if you can practice on a daily basis, some kind of mindfulness or connectedness, what you’re doing is being more in tune with your body and your mind and your behaviors and your cognitions and that will translate into your being more self-aware, more accurate, more realistic with how you handle stressors in your life”.
The practice of listening to your body resonates with me now, but it took a long time to get here. I used to think I wanted to be a mountain guide and spent several years pursuing guiding as a career, because it seemed like spending my days in the mountains, teaching others, was the coolest, most badass thing anyone could do.
For me and many others, the “best” jobs were the ones where you got to be outside all day, the ones where you could push your body to greater and greater feats. But it took a huge toll on both my physical and mental health, making me so exhausted that I no longer had the energy to pursue climbing for personal enjoyment and causing me to develop chronic injuries due to lack of rest.
I started to realize that this was not a good profession for my body but I couldn’t let it go because I felt like I “should” continue working towards this goal.
I had completely internalized a sort of “productivity mindset” found in many parts of the outdoor community that everyone should be continually pushing themselves to summit a higher peak, climb a harder grade, thru-hike thousands more miles or ski a steeper mountain face. I was worried that if I wasn’t pushing myself enough, or decided I was satisfied with my skill level instead of trying to improve, then I wouldn’t belong in the community. But when I finally took a step back, I realized that of course there is space for me, and for everyone, in outdoors.
Curious how others have approached this transition, I reached out to Grizel Caminas, a therapist, mental health advocate, and human who loves to be outside. In 2018, she found her way to the Pacific Crest Trail through the Thru-Hiking Syndicate Ambassador (a program that sponsors hikers who have historically been excluded from thru-hiking). She says it was the best thing that ever happened to her.
“But after that, no one knew how to talk about post-trail depression,” says Grizel, in reference to the struggle to step back into daily life after the transformative experience of a big outdoor adventure, creating pressure to plan and perform at a more extreme level on a subsequent trip.
For Grizel, the pressure to get back out there and do the “next big thing” set in immediately, made more extreme by the community she had built up on social media while sharing her outdoor experience thru-hiking. “It makes me sad to see people abuse this relationship with nature. And I was one of those people for so long too, I didn’t know any better,” she reflects.
Since then, she’s found a better balance of listening to her body, what it needs and wants in the moment, and finding ways to filter out the pressure from friends, social media, and all the activities one feels like they “should” be doing in the outdoors. This can be particularly difficult in shared interest outdoor communities, when it feels like everyone on the internet and in real life is talking about the last big thing they did. Grizel admits, “I was kind of trying to step out of the outdoor industry for a bit because I just feel like a f*cking loser compared to the people in the outdoor industry”.
The difference between attention paid to physical and mental health can also feel stark. In the outdoors, physical health and safety is addressed regularly. For most outdoors professionals, a Wilderness First Responder certification or some equivalent medical training is the minimum requirement. Training around Mental health issues is much less commonly required, or even discussed, yet arises much more frequently in wilderness and outdoor communities than physical safety emergencies.
Natasha Buffo, a writer and Mental Health First Aid instructor, wants to make outdoor mental health emergencies as commonly discussed as physical ones. She teaches Mental Health First Aid courses to give people the tools to address mental health emergencies and struggles. She also notes the increase in mental health issues in the remote mountain town she calls home.
After leaving a job at Google to travel the world, Natasha took a job at the ski resort in Kirkwood, California. “A lot of people come there, like me, after going through something really challenging and looking for something new,” she explains, “so the tools that I found in Mental Health First Aid were necessary to help other people, and to get through that experience.” The injuries, deaths, addiction and other issues she has encountered are not unique to her small mountain community and she hopes to expand her training to others who are interested in hosting or receiving Mental Health First Aid training, so she encourages you to contact her Instagram if you are interested.
Being outside is amazing. Whether you’re sitting in a backyard, in a forest or on a mountaintop, outdoor activity can be a powerful tool to improve mental health from a physiological and emotional standpoint, without taking it to an extreme level.
Talking openly about mental health, and the negative effects that certain pressure and competition in the outdoor community/industry can have on that health, are an important step in finding balance and pursuing outdoor activities for the right reasons.
I’m grateful to be able to just breathe and move my body outside, grateful for the community and confidence and happy brain chemicals that work to counterbalance the stress and anxiety that so many of us experience on a daily basis. And I hope you are too. Now go get outside, in whatever way is meaningful to you!