It's Time To Get Your Family Outdoors Because… It Is Restorative.

 

As a psychologist and therapist, my job is often emotionally taxing and several years ago I found myself confronting burnout and compassion fatigue. I felt like a zombie; empty and depressed. My body, my heart and my mind seemed sluggish and unresponsive. With the help of some key friends, I began re-evaluating my heart and the way I was living my life. I was reminded that it had been well over a year since I’d last spent a night in the woods. So, I resolved to get outdoors at least one weekend each month. I grabbed a friend, loaded my backpack and headed for the mountains. Two days of hiking found us atop a mountain ridge just South of the Smoky Mountain National Park. An evening thunderstorm interrupted the humid afternoon heat - and our dinner - forcing us to temporarily retreat into the tent. Just before sunset, the sky cleared leaving a mist in the valleys unfolding below. As the sun passed below the horizon, the sky filled with color. I found a place to sit on the edge of the ridge as the shadows defining the ridges below me deepened. Transfixed by the beauty of the scene, I found myself unable to move until the sky eventually turned black and the stars began to show themselves. Like one on the brink of starvation, the experience was nurturing my mind, body and soul. Something inside of me loosed its grip and a longstanding tension of which I had lost awareness began to drain from my body. By the end of our trip, I found that I was not only more relaxed, but that my thinking was sharper and more spontaneous again.

Certainly, the conversations with my friend had played a role in the restoration I was beginning to find, but I am also convinced that the sounds, scents and sights of creation – the realigning of my own body’s rhythms to the rhythms of the natural world – had also played a significant role. When I spend time outdoors, I am often reminded that for all of my knowledge and skill as a psychologist, I have no healing balm that compares with the power of God’s creation. Immersion in His natural world reboots the mind and body, restoring energy, heightening senses and bringing greater clarity of thought. I know this and, yet, prioritizing time outdoors is neither intuitive nor easy. Culture and technology offer a convenience and comfort which too often insulate me from the natural world.

Author and Journalist Richard Louv coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” to explain the array of emotional, cognitive and social difficulties that develop when one is over-exposed to electronic devices and under-exposed to the natural world. Although elements of human culture are rich and modern technology offers great conveniences, there is something deep within our psyche that is nurtured when we are exposed to the beauty and expanse of the natural world. When we give ourselves away to a day in the woods, structured schedules are replaced with the rhythms of the natural world. Intentional and mentally demanding efforts to direct our attention toward the tasks and problems of daily life are replaced by the fascination of a natural world that captures the mind’s attention, restoring – rather than depleting – mental energy. Research suggests that children and adults who live in proximity to green space and involve themselves in outdoor activities are more physically and emotionally healthy; they have greater emotional intelligence, higher self-esteem, spend less time with electronic devices, have lower blood pressure and are less likely to be obese.

And you don’t have to move your family to a rural or remote location to gain these benefits. Research suggests that even small doses of “Vitamin N” – 30 – 60 minutes outdoors a day – can foster significant benefits to cognitive, emotional and relational functioning. We’ve now confirmed what artists have long known, being outdoors fosters inspiration and creativity. For years I avoided local parks like the Chattahoochee River Parks and Kennesaw Mountain because I did not consider them to be wild enough. More recently, I have discovered how wrong I was. I’ve made weekly hikes in these smaller, but no less natural, areas a part of my weekly routine and it makes a difference to my mental, physical and spiritual health. Even sitting out on the back deck of my suburban home – where the sound of the birds is diminished by the drone of passing cars, lawnmowers and the HVAC unit – is now a fundamental part of my personal maintenance program. So, get yourself and your children outside; allow His creation opportunity to bring you the healing and nurturance it offers.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul – Psalm 23


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