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Back to Nature: Supporting Our Mental Health & Wellness

“Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” – John Muir

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so there’s no better time to explore our intrinsic connection to Earth’s natural spaces and their life enhancing effects on our holistic well-being. Over the past 100 years or so, humans have gradually slipped away from those connections; we have exchanged a life reliant on the land for one of convenience in urban settings, and we’re paying for that move in profound ways. Last fall, an Australian study revealed that time spent in our national parks has the potential to save trillions in healthcare spending worldwide to prevent mental health issues and associated health conditions. In my practice as a holistic wellness consultant, I’ve long emphasized our need to embrace prevention just as much as we seek treatment. It’s time to get back to nature.

Chronic, unchecked stress reactions in our bodies contribute to nearly all the top killers for Americans, namely cardiac failure, lung ailments, alcoholism, drug overdose, and certain cancers. That list is a bit overwhelming, isn’t it? I encourage my clients to find empowerment in knowing that we hold the ability to counteract those stress reactions, hopefully preventing one of those terrible conditions above. Instead of using time in nature to “recover” from our stress or simply get away from the noise, what if we began to think about visits to national parks as prevention, not only for our physical well-being, but our mental health as well?

Photo by Parker Amstutz/Courtesy of Unsplash

I’ve spent the last 20 years building my lifelong commitment to a daily wellness practice that supports my physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental well-being. I believe we all approach these practices from different angles due to our unique lives and abilities. Each of us should feel empowered in our own ability to thrive in all areas of our wellness practices. Each wellness area is part of a holistic approach to lifelong well-being and I encourage you to embrace them with self-compassion and creativity. When it comes to stress prevention (not just management), the key is building up our resiliency to external stress over time. Experiencing nature in many forms is a big part of that effort.

We live in a world that encourages sedentary lifestyles, from our jobs to our TV binging. We must fight an upstream current to build and maintain healthy habits; when the focus is on prevention, I argue the upstream current is a lot easier to swim. Time spent in nature is a foundational part of those healthy habits, and science has given us proof that exposure to time outdoors has the ability to reduce negative feelings, such as anger, fear, and stress, while enhancing positive emotions like hope, happiness, and peace. It can also lower blood pressure, increase blood circulation, and support our natural detoxification processes. Sweat, lately?

So, what can you do if you don’t regular have access to a national park? The best part about our planet is that nature is abundant, even if it’s a small square of grass in a concrete jungle. I encourage you to walk for at least 15-30 minutes each day. Breathe deeply through your nose, out your mouth, and let the sunshine hit your face and forearms. Sunshine is directly responsible, not only for vitamin D production, but also for regulating serotonin. Serotonin is a hormone largely responsible for mood control and sleep patterns—15-30 minutes in nature has the power to help us regulate mood and sleep! What more excuse do we need to get outside for a bit and unplug during our frenetic days? Going barefoot in the grass, gardening, camping over the weekend, and even planning our next national park hike all have the powerful ability to enhance our mood, prevent chronic health conditions, and build healthier habits over time. Time in nature shouldn’t be an afterthought. We owe it our work, our families, and ourselves to get back to it, to preserve our beautiful planet, and to pass along these connections to the next generation of people prioritizing their holistic well-being.

Photo by Martin Reisch/Courtesy of Unsplash

I am thrilled to share how we can spend time in national parks to nurture our preventive, holistic wellness practices. We’ll talk tips to enhance our mindfulness whether we’re alone or with kiddos, tools of visualization and meditation with these gorgeous spaces, building our resiliency to stress, and how much our overall health depends on experiencing nature every day no matter where we are. Stay tuned for highlights on what the NPS is doing to promote our innate connection to these spaces, because word is out, and it’s time to get back to nature.

Header photo: By Justin Pritchard/Courtesy of Unsplash

Mental health and wellness are Kayla Fanning’s passions, and she strongly believes our environment and culture play the largest role in holistic well-being. She helps organizations and humans build happier, healthier lives so they can thrive and not just survive. Nature is where she resets and finds balance.

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