A powerful remedy you can apply for anxiety relief is to slow down, take a break, and reconnect with nature. As human beings our separation from nature has only taken place over the last 100-200 years, but nature hasn’t left us. We can always tune back in.
Taking moments to relax and step outside has tremendous benefits for your health. According to a recent Japanese study, it significantly reduces many of the physiological effects of anxiety, including a 12.4% decrease in cortisol, 7% decrease in sympathetic nervous activity and 6% decrease in heart rate. Whether you have access to the beach, a forest, the mountains or an urban park, spending time in nature helps to ease stress and anxiety, and even boost your mood.
The Simple Act of Taking a Walk
Movement can be one of the best forms of medicine when you experience anxiety. For example going outside for a walk is an easy and immediate way to improve how you feel. The benefits are manifold: Breathing fresh air helps you reconnect with your breath and exercise helps regulate anxious breathing.
Often with anxiety, there is a tendency to breath too quickly or too shallowly. This can cause a tight feeling in your chest, and an imbalance of oxygen and carbon dioxide. The more frequently you go for a walk, the more your body will breathe well and easy. Also, walking helps to ground you back into your body. In an anxious state, your focus is pulled out of your body and into your thoughts. Whereas, the simple rhythm of breath and body connecting with earth, the sky and the trees, can be grounding and soothing, and help you rebalance body and mind.
Being in sunlight is also good for your health, especially your brain chemistry. UV rays help with the production of serotonin, and beta-endorphins which assist with overall feelings of well-being. A recent Stanford-led study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that people who went for a 90-minute walk in nature showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with depression and anxiety.
In addition to walking, there are many benefits to just being outside. When you feel consumed by anxious thoughts, spending time in nature can provide sensory distractions. Admiring the beauty of a blossoming tree, smelling the earthy aroma of freshly cut grass and listening to the spritely sound of birds chirping are all pleasant reminders to pull you back into the present moment and away from focusing on your symptoms of anxiety. Here are some other exercises you can try when outdoors.
Nature Exercises to Help with Anxiety
This simple meditation practice of repeatedly bringing awareness to the soles of your feet as you walk helps you to worry less and become more present.
As you walk along, feel how your feet contact the earth. The rhythm is: heel, sole, toe, heel, sole toe. Feel your heel as it touches the ground. Then simply feel your weight shift as it rolls from the heel to the sole to the ball of your feet, over and over in an ordinary, pleasant rhythm. Sense the quality of the ground below you. If you feel well connected with the meditation, start to include your legs, and the rest of your body. As you continue on your walk, it’s normal that your mind will wander away. When it does, simply notice that it’s wandered, and then gently return to the experience of contact with the earth and body. Don’t forget to hold a light touch with this exercise. There’s no right or wrong way of doing it. Relax, enjoy, and see how it goes.
Forest Bathing (Shinrin-yoku)
This ancient Japanese practice has become increasingly popular in recent years, especially among business people who spend lots of time in offices. Shinrin in Japanese means “forest,” and yoku means “bath.” So shinrin-yoku means bathing in the forest or simply being in nature and taking in the natural environment through your senses. While the name implies a forest setting, it can be done anywhere outdoors.
As you set out into nature, walk slowly and aimlessly. Tune in to your different senses: Listen to the sound of wind rustling through the leaves. Smell the fragrant flowers. Let your eyes be captured by a playful squirrel or a brilliant flower. Taste the earthy, freshness of the air. Feel the sun warm your skin or a breeze caress your hair. As you start to open your senses, let your body begin to guide you.
Do you feel yourself wanting to put your feet in a cool stream or sit beneath a shady tree? With forest bathing, it’s okay to stop and simply enjoy whatever captures your attention. You don’t have to go anywhere in particular. Give yourself permission to take your time and just be there. As you connect with nature, you’re reminding yourself how to relax, you’re remembering a natural ability that never actually went away.
Another great exercise is earthing. Until modern times, humans spent much of their lives close to the earth. They farmed the land with their hands, slept on the ground and wore simple leather shoes. These days, we can go months or even years without making direct contact with the ground. We sleep in beds, sit in chairs and clad our feet with rubber.
Directly touching the surface of the earth can have tremendous healing effects. Try going barefoot outside for just 20 minutes and see if it makes a difference in your mood. Sit, stand or walk on grass, sand or dirt and feel it against your skin. Spend some time gardening and feel the earth in your hands.
Or, lay atop a blanket on the grass and gaze at the clouds. And as you become close to the ground, feel comforted by the stability and solidity of the earth.
Mother Earth, Father Sky
This is a somewhat more advanced form of practice, but give it a try and see how it goes. Variations of this ancient meditation are found in many cultures—from Asia to Africa to the Americas. To start, stand upright but relaxed and just notice your breath and body.
Next, feel the ground beneath you. Feel the deep and solid support of the earth. Feel the heaviness of your body, how the weight of your body is connected to, and with, the depth of the earth.
Once you feel this connection, let your awareness move upwards, and notice that despite how heavy and solid your body feels, it is also uplifted and light. Notice the space around you, the air, the trees or other elements around you, and the sky. Notice the openness and expansive quality of the sky and environment. Now notice those same qualities in your body. You are light, mobile, and expansive.
Finally, tune into how those two qualities, the solid groundedness of the earth, and the expansive potential of space and sky, are unified in your body. You are both earth bound and light, practical and potential, all at the same time. Feel the energy of the earth and sky as they move through you, feel how your body/mind are somehow a marriage of these two realities.
The Importance of Allowing a Gap
Whether going outside for a 10-minute walk or taking a retreat for several days, spending time in nature creates a gap in your normal routine. When you experience anxiety it’s helpful to give yourself permission to step away for a moment and engage in compassionate self care. So the next time you feel your anxiety taking hold, create a little space and spend some time in nature. It’s a wonderfully caring thing you can do for yourself.