Nature: the ultimate antidepressant

Ernst Tinaja at Big Bend National Park, West Texas.

Ernst Tinaja at Big Bend National Park, West Texas.

I just returned with my family from the Davis Mountains in West Texas, home to the second darkest night skies in the U.S. We love to go there for the magical starry nights where the milky way can easily be seen without a telescope and for the sparsely populated terrain and the vast wilderness. We take this annual pilgrimage because this “nature bath”–where we completely unplug and just hike, stargaze, sleep and read for days–brings us back to ourselves and to one another.

Nature opens me to the now; to the present moment. It allows me to access wisdom and insights I never could have in my 24/7 modern life. I never cease to be amazed by the ideas and clarity that often bubble up after a weekend at the ocean or a day in the cool, dark woods. Time in nature is often referred to as the ultimate antidepressant because it affects us physically, mentally and emotionally. Time outdoors reduces stress, positively affects our mood/overall mental help, helps us to “reset,” promotes cognitive abilities, fosters problem solving and creativity, support work/life balance, stimulates social interactions and supports family connection and intimacy.

One recent Saturday, nothing in our household or family was going right. Everyone seemed grumpy, disconnected and frustrated; lack of sleep and an unbalanced diet had taken their toll. I finally suggested we surrender the day, throw some snacks and water in a backpack, and head to a wilderness preserve a short drive from our home. My husband and son begrudgingly agreed and an hour and a half later we were laughing together, running on the trails and feeling like all was right in the world. Nothing shifts perspective and heals like being in a beautiful natural setting! It doesn’t take much.

Seeing the effect that being outdoors has on my family has convinced me that spending time in nature needs to be as natural and regular as breathing. Not something we save for a special occasion–but something that is built into our daily flow.

If it’s been years since you’ve spent time outdoors, or perhaps you feel out of your element chasing bears and mountain lions, consider the following ideas:

•Team up. Ask your nature-loving friends for advice on local spots, and join them on their next excursion to discover hidden gems in your area.

•Stay close to home. Get to know your own backyard, street, neighborhood park, and any natural areas within walking distance.

•Go micro. Pack supplies: take a glass jar and catch minnows in a nearby stream, or take a magnifying glass out to a field and see life from a bug’s perspective!

•Get campy. Dare yourself to go camping. This can be a wonderful experience for families; invite a group of families to join you. Take it slow and easy: sleep in “camping cabins” or set up a tent in your own backyard!

•Join a group. Visit your local camping or outdoor store (such as REI) and sign up for a class or guided hike with a local wilderness survival or families in nature organization.

•Plan a picnic. Pack a simple picnic of cold food, grab a blanket and head to your closest park; kids love the spontaneity of picnics on a weeknight or on a lazy Sunday!

•Make it a game. If hiking is no draw, play outdoor games like soccer, horseshoes, Wiffle ball, and Frisbee golf — or turn exploration into a competition: Who can spot the most squirrels, birds, or bats, or find the most unusual rocks, shells, or crystals?

•Make a date. Set up a weekly or monthly “nature date” with family and friends, and rotate which park or natural area you visit (let the kids choose!).

•Grow your own grub. Explore container gardening and grow your own herbs and vegetables; kids love to grow their own food! Then visit a local farm (your local farmer’s market is a great place to get connected to nearby farms).

•Tune in to nature’s rhythms. Consider marking the full moon, new moon, or summer solstice with a hike, outdoor drum circle, or swim — kids love ritual, and it can be a fun, meaningful way to connect to nature ’s rhythms.

•Create new habits. Make nature a daily or weekly habit. Head to a local park after school, even if it’s only one or two days a week; even a short park visit before you head home can really enhance everyone ’s mood!

•Enjoy evening strolls. Take evening walks in your neighborhood each night after dinner — these can be relaxing for parents and help everyone prepare for good sleep. They are wonderful, easy opportunities to observe your immediate natural environment.

•Ask the experts. Contact your state park office and ask about their family programs. Also visit the websites for the Sierra Club and the Children and Nature Network — founded by my friend Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods — to learn about family-oriented events in your area.

•Be adventurous. Experience nature ’s “wild side” and do something you’ve never done before! National parks are ideal for this, since they preserve our continent’s natural treasures and usually maintain accessible, family- friendly facilities. Or choose an “extreme” activity: go sea kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, zip-lining, rock climbing, snowshoeing — any thing fun. Or consider swapping homes with another family in a natural area you’d like to visit; try using a service like www.homeexchange.com.

•Get creative. Don’t feel hemmed in by your urban or suburban home turf. Seek out all the green spaces you can find: botanical gardens, sculpture gardens, a rooftop garden, a neighbor’s outdoor space, a school playground, or even an open plaza or square where you can watch the birds and squirrels.

Merely getting outside at night in a place where you can see the stars — really see them in all their amazing vastness — is enough. The experience always reminds me of how small and inconsequential my worries are. Life is a mystery, not a thing to be managed. The healing power of nature recalibrates us and helps put things in perspective.

Nature is one of the greatest gifts we have available to us. In our galaxy, the sun is one of a hundred billion stars. Now how important is it to make sure you finish your laundry and your car gets washed again? Pick up a copy of my new book Nurturing the Soul of Your Family: 10 Ways to Reconnect and Find Peace in Everyday Life to get more great ideas on how to immerse your family in the healing power of nature!

P.S. Seeking clarity and ease in the New Year in your personal/professional life?  Join me for New Way of Being: Learning to Go with the Flow –a powerful *new* 4-week life balance telecourse for men/women at all life stages via phone on Thursday evenings in January. Learn more here and register now.

Subscribe here to Live Inside Out, a weekly blog written by work/life balance speaker/author Renée Peterson Trudeau. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping and more. Thousands of women in ten countries are becoming RTA-Certified Facilitators and leading/joining self-renewal groups based on her award-winning curriculum. Her newest release is Nurturing the Soul of Your Family. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and 11 year-old son. More on her background here.