How Spending Time Outdoors Can Improve Your Mental Health
Jun 29, 2020 10:41AM
By Elyse Wild
Even under normal circumstances, by the time West Michigan winter lets go of its wet grip on spring, we are more than eager for the opportunity to spend as much time outside as possible. After enduring the coronavirus shelter-in-place order, I think it’s fair to say that getting into the great outdoors (or heck, even your backyard) is key in maintaining mental health through a time when many of us have felt trapped inside.
If you need any other reason beside, you know, the gloriousness of West Michigan in the summer, Christine Mushlock, LMSW and outpatient therapist at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Service adds, “Our minds and bodies are affected by our environment. Stressful home, school or work environments can contribute to muscle tension, elevated blood pressure and increased levels of stress hormones in the body, which over time, can contribute to elevated symptoms of anxiety and depression. Research shows that spending time outdoors, in natural environments, can reduce these symptoms as well as improve cognitive functioning, energy and mood.”
Since coronavirus shutdown orders began to roll out across the nation, reports of anxiety and depression have risen; in a survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 45% of adults reported that the pandemic has negatively impacted their overall mental health. And, healthtrends.com reported that Michigan ranked number 1 nationwide from tweets about anxiety and depression. If you are among those experiencing these emotions, Muschlock says that getting outdoors might help
“It’s not rocket science that anxiety and depression take a toll on a person’s emotional, social and physical well-being,” said Mushlock. “And while spending time outdoors won’t cure depression and anxiety, there is an ever-growing body of research that shows a multitude of mental and physical health benefits of time spent outdoors, which scientists and researchers are trying to better understand.”
And while the governor may have rescinded the shelter-in-place order, social distancing is still required. The question is, how do we even begin to enjoy the summer we look forward to all year long? We still can; it’s just going to look a little different.
Visit State Parks
State parks, trails, forests and other public lands remain open for day use. Keep in mind that while the grounds remain open many amenities, like concessions, playgrounds, viewing platforms, dog areas, volleyball and basketball courts and more, will be closed. Hand washing stations won’t be provided, so be sure to carry hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes in your beach bag or hiking backpack. Trash services at these sites have been halted and the state is asking visitors to bring bags for carrying out garbage. Social-distancing is still required among individuals who aren’t living in the same household. And did we mention you don’t need a Recreation Passport to enter state park and recreation areas? The state is allowing free entry to everyone until at least two weeks after the stay-at-home order is lifted.
Boating falls under the list of acceptable outdoor recreational activities under the governor’s order. Take out your motorboat, or slip your canoe or kayak into your favorite body of water (don’t all Michiganders all have one?)
Hit the Trails
Kent County boasts more than 100 miles of beautiful hiking trails and they are calling your name. Hike, bike, jog — whatever you wish — as long it is in compliance with social distancing guidelines. As with state parks, trail facilities, which include bathrooms, playgrounds, campsites, courts and drinking fountains, remain closed. Find a trail near you at kentcountyparks.com
Summer is a time in which Michiganders engage in the sacred ritual of grilling. Whether you are a vegetarian or a meat-enthusiast, a charcoal-purist or sing the praises of propane, there is something about food prepared on a grill that makes it just taste better. And, there is something about cooking on the grill that just feels so satisfyingly primal. Buy fresh veggies from the Fulton Street Farmers Market, or stock up on locally sourced meat from Louis Earl Butcher.
Mushlock suggests practicing mindfulness while outdoors.
“Mindfulness is a common coping approach in supporting management of mental health symptoms,” she said. “Mindfulness encourages the person to tune into their senses and increase their awareness of the present moment. Whether it’s going for an evening walk or walking out to get the mail, just being outside is an experience. What you see, hear, smell and feel outside is different than what you sense indoors. Think of what you are sensing next time you’re outdoors (the breeze, the birds, the scent of the air). Consider what you notice, how it feels, if you find it pleasant.”
Mushlock emphasizes that one doesn’t necessarily need a measurable purpose to spend time outdoors.
“Researchers exploring the mental health benefits of spending time outdoors would absolutely encourage people to ‘stop and smell the roses.’” she said. “Being outdoors provides us with a tangible opportunity to exercise curiosity, to pause and shift our focus and awareness to something more pleasant and positive. Even with all the limitations and restrictions put into place due to COVID-19, the outdoors remains as one of the most accessible and enriching resources available. People don’t need to start an outdoor exercise routine or go on a retreat to benefit from the great outdoors. Simply step outside and notice.”