The Original Natural Remedy for Burnout: Nature

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Photo: Graiki/Getty Images

Here’s a modern paradox: People report that they feel significantly happier outdoors than they do indoors, yet we spend less than 5 percent of our waking hours in nature. Such were the findings of a recent study published in the journal Global Environmental Change, which used an iPhone app called Mappiness to track the location and corresponding emotional state of over 20,000 participants. These results are troubling yet unsurprising; Nature is becoming increasingly foreign to our culture. Researchers from the London Business School and University of Wisconsin found that even references to nature have been decreasing steadily in English-language novels, song lyrics, and films since the 1950s. The great irony, of course, is that while we’re hardly experiencing nature, we need it now perhaps more than ever.

Burnout is a costly scourge: The combination of increasing global competition, digital devices that compel us to be online 24/7, and an ugly political environment is leaving over 40 percent of Americans feeling down, distressed, and disengaged. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the use of antidepressants has risen 400 percent since the mid-1990s, and anxiety is at an all-time high. I’ve experienced symptoms of burnout in the past, and I — like pretty much everyone else I know — have certainly had my fair share of recent ruts. Contrary to my most common practices, I’ve learned through experience that scrolling through social media, visiting CNN’s website, or staring into some other screen rarely helps. Nature, however, does.

In her wonderful new book The Nature Fix, journalist Florence Williams writes that nature serves as a welcome reprieve from the seemingly endless demands and constant stimuli of modern life. She makes the compelling case that nature not only makes us subjectively feel better, but it also alters our biology, measurably subduing our fight-or-flight stress response.

When you consider the deep history of our species, this makes sense. Modern urban living — and all the digital technologies that accompany it — are relatively new phenomenas for us sapiens. The biophilia hypothesis, made popular by the Harvard entomologist E. O. Wilson, states that we evolved to have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. Wilson believes that since we, as a species, grew up in nature, we are biologically programmed to be drawn to it. In other words, a longing for nature may literally be in our blood — we’re hardwired to feel at home and at ease not in the city or in the suburbs, but in nature.

Consider research from Japan, where scientists have taken hundreds of individuals on “forest walks,” or leisurely strolls through lush green spaces, and measured a variety of bioindicators related to stress before and after. They’ve found that, compared to urban walks, forest walks have a significantly more positive effect: They reduce cortisol levels, diminish sympathetic nerve activity, and decrease both blood pressure and heart rate. Other research, out of Stanford University and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that, after a 90-minute nature walk versus an urban walk of the same duration, people not only self-reported decreased rumination, but they also demonstrated decreased neural activity in the part of the brain associated with anxiety and depression (the subgenual prefrontal cortex). What’s especially interesting about these studies is that — thanks to having urban-walk control groups — they control for the positive effects of aerobic exercise and isolate the unique benefits of nature.

Nature can also boost our creativity and capacity to think clearly. Citing research from the University of Michigan that culminated in something called Attention Restoration Theory, Williams writes in The Nature Fix, “Nature lulls us with soft fascination, helping to rest our top-down, direct-attention faculties” — or the parts of our brain that are involved in effortful thinking, which are constantly triggered by the stimuli of urban environments. “With that restoration,” Williams writes, “we become more relaxed and can perform thinking tasks better.” In layperson’s terms, nature encourages our over-stimulated brains to chill out, and a chilled-out brain tends to function better.

The University of Michigan researchers found that even just looking at pictures of nature can have this effect. In one study, they had undergraduate students take baseline tests to measure their attention and effortful-thinking ability (i.e., memorizing a string of numbers and then reciting them backwards, and making quick decisions based on cues that were momentarily flashed). Next, the students completed about 35 minutes worth of tasks designed to fatigue these same abilities, such as solving tricky puzzles and responding to various stimuli as fast as possible. Then, the students were instructed to take a break, during which they were shown a series of 50 pictures of either natural or urban environments.

Only those who viewed the nature pictures improved their performance on repeat tests of attention and effortful-thinking. It is important to note that this study was limited to a small sample size of just 12 students; while a comprehensive review of 31 similar studies found evidence that nature does, in fact, help restore our mental faculties, it also called for additional research.

Even so, it seems the evidence is mounting that nature could be a promising treatment for much of what ails us — affecting both how we think and how we feel. And while the science is fascinating, I also know of nature’s benefits from my own lived experience. My clearest and most creative thinking almost always occurs not at a desk or on the pavement (and certainly not on a treadmill), but on the trail. When I’m feeling down, my most accessible drug of choice, urban exercise, may provide sufficient short-term relief, but I’ve found being in nature is more powerful and brings more of a lasting, perspective-changing impact.

Earlier this year, for example, during a period in which the political climate was making me especially sick, I went on a long, slow trail run through greenery and around a reservoir as the sun was rising. Midway through, I was joined for a good 30 seconds by a mother deer running with her three fawn. About a minute later, I saw a mother human running with her two daughters. Though I still can’t put my finger on exactly why — perhaps because I was reminded that we are all merely just a minuscule part of something much bigger — the experience brought me to tears. I felt better for a long time.

Yet even I — sitting here, extolling the evidence of its benefits, reporting on my awesome experience in it, and yes, even being a columnist for a periodical that is literally called Outside — still don’t spend nearly enough time immersed in nature. Though the question of exactly how much time one ought to spend in nature is up for debate, Williams references research from Finland suggesting at least 5 hours per month. But she makes it clear that there is a dose-response effect: The more time you spend in nature, the better off you’ll be, and more is generally better. (For me, “enough” seems to be 10 to 15 hours per week.) Same goes for the intensity of the experience. Although all of the following are beneficial, being in Yellowstone Park is better than being in an urban park, and experiencing nature with all five of your senses is far more powerful than viewing pictures.

The reason I don’t spend enough time with nature is simple, and probably quite common: I’m a sucker for the default option, whether that means the screensaver that came preloaded on my computer (city lights — not kidding) or the ease of running out my front door on urban sidewalks. But here’s the thing: All it takes to override these default options is a bit of deliberate intention and planning. Though surrounding yourself with nature isn’t always easy (especially not for city-dwellers), it turns out that it’s not so hard, either:

• Change your screensaver to flash images of nature. Do this now.
• Make a nature walk, hike, or run a part of your regular weekend routine. I know — driving to the trailhead takes additional effort, but it’s so worth it. (Bring snacks!)
• Take nature vacations. Hiking and/or camping are some of the lowest-cost, highest-fun trips there are! If you’re into mountains, many of the western states — Colorado, Utah, Montana, Wyoming, and Oregon — offer access to nature within just two hours of major airports.
• When you’re in nature, ditch your digital devices. As I’ve recently written for Outside, the quality of your experience soars when you leave your smartphone behind.
• If you’re at a point in your life when you are considering a geographic relocation, consider making proximity to nature a part of the equation.

Of all the “natural” remedies that purport to have benefits, nature — the most natural of them all — has plenty of scientific support. Most of us would benefit from having more of it in our lives.

Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He’s a co-author of the new book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success. Follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.

The Original Natural Remedy for Burnout: Nature