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Stress Awareness Month: the outdoors as a means of reducing stress

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Logo: Outdoor Partnership

Now that we are in April – officially ‘Stress Awareness Month’ – we look at how being in the outdoors benefits mental as well as physical health.

person climbing a mountain (Cumbria Tourism)
(Cumbria Tourism)

There are many reasons why people choose careers that enable them to work outdoors. The freedom of not being chained to a desk – having a wide, open space as an ‘office’ – is undoubtedly a popular reason, as are the benefits to physical fitness of being in a non-sedentary job.

But perhaps less talked-about are the benefits to mental health of spending time outdoors, whether in a professional, social or recreational capacity – and in particular, the stress-reducing properties of being outdoors.

Whether you’re employed in a rural or urban setting, the time you spend outdoors is helping to relieve stress.

Of course, all jobs can be stressful – even those largely performed outdoors – and work isn’t the only thing that causes stress. The restrictions we’ve faced under the Covid-19 pandemic, making access to the outdoors more difficult for city-dwellers, is a good example of this. But whatever the cause of stress, there’s a good chance that being outdoors can help to relieve it.

And that’s not to say that being outdoors necessarily means climbing a mountain or diving off a cliff! Sometimes it’s the simplest of outdoor activities that help a stressed person to let go of tension and feel relaxed and/or reinvigorated.

If you’ve got a dog, the simple act of coming home from work at the end of the day and taking Fido for walkies can be a massive stress reliever. Even in terrible weather, dog owners report that walking the dog relieves stress because it draws a line under the day, helps them to be mindful of their surroundings, and helps to reduce the noise from ‘racing thoughts’.

Even if you don’t have a dog of your own, perhaps you have a relative or neighbour who would appreciate some help with exercising their dog occasionally.

person riding a bicycle (Cumbria Tourism)
(Cumbria Tourism)

The social aspects of walking a dog are also great for relieving stress. Dog walkers tend to have a routine when it comes to what time they exercise their pets, and which locations they use. This means it’s likely you’ll bump into the same dog walkers quite regularly. If your work involves being on your own a lot of the time, or if the isolation of the Covid restrictions is getting you down, spending some time in the company of other dog owners can be a great way to offset any loneliness-related stress that arises during the working day.

No dog, no access to someone else’s dog? No problem! There are plenty of other ways to get outdoors and soothe the soul, wherever you’re located.

If you live in a city, head for your nearest park or other green space. Notice what you see around you: the different varieties of plants and trees, the birdsong, the smell of freshly cut grass or just the colour of the sky. Taking notice of one’s surroundings is a very grounding exercise, forcing you to exist ‘in the moment’ and reducing the stressful effects of worrying about things in the past or the future which you may not be able to control.

If visiting a park to be around plants isn’t an option, a spot of gardening is an excellent alternative.

person walking in the mountains with ponies in view (The Outdoor Partnership)
(The Outdoor Partnership)

Tending a garden – whether large, small or even just a few pots on a balcony – is a great way to de-stress. Taking care of something you’ve grown is a good reminder to take care of yourself too.

Growing and nurturing plants is very rewarding, and a great exercise in mindfulness. While your concentration is on your plants – again, noticing how they look, feel, smell and, in the case of vegetables, taste – you’re not giving attention to the situations that make you feel stressed. Even if you’ve only got access to a window box, there are plenty of plants that are easy to grow. Nasturtium and Californian Poppy seeds are very easy to grow, even on the balcony of a tower block; or if you’d like to try growing something edible you can’t go wrong with radishes, rocket or lettuce.

That simple act of providing care to another living being – even something as undemanding as a packet of sprouted cress – can help to push unwelcome thoughts away.

With the gradual reopening of outdoor attractions, like RHS gardens and National Trust properties, which it’s hoped will happen towards the end of April, getting outdoors for no other reason than to just appreciate nature will become much easier. If you’re lucky enough to already work outdoors, but feel that you’d like to spend more of your leisure time outside too (and don’t feel inclined to do any gardening of your own), then a day at a beautiful garden built on someone else’s hard work is perfect.

If you’re an employer who’d like to offer nature-based ways to help employees reduce their stress levels, you might consider offering ecotherapy as a group activity. The mental health charity Mind offers some good information about this here.

In conclusion, any time spent in nature is helpful in reducing stress levels, so whichever form of outdoors location you choose – from the mighty mountain to the lowly window box – will help if you’re feeling a little frazzled.

Tracey Evans is CEO of The Outdoor Partnership, which works with the people of Wales to help them take up outdoor activities as a lifelong pursuit. https://partneriaeth-awyr-agored.co.uk/

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