I spend a disproportionate amount of my life documenting and citing the link between nature and stress reduction. When I say nature, I mean the kind that you find outdoors. It could be in a healing garden designed specifically for reducing stress in the body, or an idyllic trail full of sunshine and fresh air.
Research has shown that you don’t even have to make it outdoors to experience stress relief from nature– in one study, viewing pictures of outdoor landscapes alone showed significant stress reduction in cardiac patients.
That said, I think far too many of us experience obstacles to accessing the healing effects of nature, from neighborhood inequities in green space to time off from the types of jobs that violate our personal boundaries, and I most especially want to talk about how difficult it can be to get in the habit of visiting the outdoors and reveling in nature’s gifts. Because findings ways to experience nature isn’t natural for everyone. It can take work and I want to share how I developed a relationship with the outdoors with others who may find it difficult.
A lot of my trouble with experiencing nature began in early adulthood. I didn’t have an easy transition between adulthood, education and career. My early career began while I was still in college and focused on technology. And thus– I spent time indoors, working full time while also attending classes, and doing things that rarely intersected with the outdoor world.
The older I got, the more impossible it seemed, doing something like going for a hike, and I entered a phase where I believed I just wasn’t meant for the outdoors for a series of reasons that seemed honestly threatening. Because …what if i got lost? Had trouble finding a trailhead? Couldn’t follow the trail markers? Couldn’t finish the hike? Got attacked by a bear or a mountain lion? Never mind. I’ll stay home.
The world outside became uncontrollable, remote and dangerous. In the end, the more afraid I became of exploring the outdoors, the more I needed the stress relief that being outdoors can bring.
Just as I found a series of reasons for not going outdoors, it was also a series of attempts at getting there that finally made it a reality. So, if you’re someone who has always wanted to get outside, I hope one of the tips below can be of help.
- Learn unknown areas by car first
I can drive an hour in any direction and end up on some seriously spectacular trails. Until I learned how to navigate these hour-away places on foot, I drove through them. I drove past the ranger stations and peeked at trail heads from the window of my car. I learned where trails were in relationship to one another and could see which were isolated and which seemed within reasonable shouting distance in case of emergency. Eventually, staying in my car became torture and curiosity got me out the door.
- Start with baby steps
But before I ever even attempted a full-blown mountain trail, I explored local parks and public gardens. I started on short, paved walking paths and then advanced to dirt trails that went further than I could see or actually walk in an afternoon. This helped me understand what I actually needed to take with me, too– sunglasses, a hat and water. I could handle wearing denim or Yoga pants, and didn’t need the most expensive shoes or backpack.
- Meet up with groups of people when possible
One of the first things I ever did outdoors was look for local astronomy clubs. I’ve always wanted to know more about the night sky and so I found a group that met in Yosemite National Park at Glacier Point. This group let you peek through their high-powered telescopes and was willing to share incredible amounts of information. More than a decade later, you can go on any number of astronomy tours at Glacier Point, which have their roots in these local clubs.
- Look at local conservation efforts
A good place to start hiking is on local land trusts. This type of land, which is left in a public trust, has been specifically pinpointed for conservation– which means that there are usually a small army of volunteers who spend their time giving guided tours. You might be surprised who volunteers to docent on these lands. I’ve met local politicians, university professors, psychics and homemakers– so it’s almost always interesting. Plus, guided tours let you think more about your environment than navigation or time keeping.
- New stuff can suck at first
Just because you don’t experience some amazing revelation or spiritual connection with nature on your first trips (or any trips really) out, you shouldn’t be bummed. Going outside can suck. You could fall down, have an allergy attack or just hate all of the bugs. These things do happen. Give it some time. Try to relax. Eventually you will relax without trying and it won’t suck so much anymore.