The Great Outdoors
Most of us are stuck at home as a result of COVID-19. This is obviously a scary and unprecedented time for all of us. I’m sure many of you, if not most of you, are having a difficult time managing the stress of knowing that the coronavirus is spreading, and being home with extra time to think about it is not helping. There are a lot of articles out there on how to deal with your stress, but they’re hidden amongst a multitude of other doomsday articles telling you how bad it really is. How are you supposed to stay sane in the midst of all this?
First, be aware that being concerned is perfectly normal and expected. Let yourself feel what you need to feel. We all have anxiety over this pandemic, and there are valid reasons to feel angst. So yell, scream, punch something (not someone), cry, or whatever else you need to do to get out your emotions.
That should help for a short while. But once that’s done, you need a longer-term solution to your stress. Fortunately, a great option is staring us all in the face, and many of you are already doing it- spending time outside.
The Japanese have a term called “Shinrin-yoku”, which translates to “forest bathing”. It doesn’t mean taking a bath outside. Rather, it refers to soaking in the forest atmosphere or immersing yourself in nature. It’s starting to become popular in the U.S. only recently, but the Japanese have been doing it for years, because they realize the benefits of being outside.
Sadly, even before Coronavirus, studies indicated that the average American spends over 90% of his/her life indoors. And now that we’re all quarantined, that number is likely to go up in many places. But it doesn’t have to.
We evolved outside, so our brains and our bodies are wired to navigate forests and plains, not apartment buildings and crowded cities. When we use our brain in the way it was designed to be used, ie. outdoors, it tends to function better. Multiple studies have shown that time outside, and specifically in nature, decreases stress, improves mood, lowers blood pressure, stimulates creativity, and may even boost your immune system. Nature can help improve ADHD in children. The results are so profound that some doctors have started prescribing “forest therapy” for multiple conditions. This may not be much of a surprise to you if you’ve spent a lot of time in the woods, yet getting a regular dose of Mother Nature is not typical in the U.S.
There are plenty of reasons why you might not get outside as much as you should. Often we get into our car in our garage, drive to our garage at work, and take the elevator to our office without ever seeing the sun. Then at the end of the day, it’s dark, we’re tired, we want to spend time with our family or, sometimes, more importantly, the TV. I get it, and I’ve been there.
However, we should all realize that any time outside counts. Certainly, exercising among the trees is great, but even sitting on your front porch (where I am currently writing this blog) can be beneficial. And now, during the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s not only more important to be outside for our mental health, but for many of us, it’s also easier to do. It’s spring, work has slowed down (along with the economy), and the outdoors is just about the only place we can go to get out of the house. Plus, thanks to Zoom and other digital platforms, we can work from just about anywhere. Why not work in the park?
So if you haven’t already done so, get reacquainted with the great outdoors. A short walk, a bike ride, gardening, or sitting on a park bench can be invigorating. Even sitting on your balcony or porch can improve your mood.
Your mom always said, “Go outside!” Who knew how right she was? There has never been a better time. And watch out for me, because I’ll be out there too.
Ken Zweig, M.D.
Northern Virginia Family Practice