Our Brains on Nature

December 2020 | by stephanie hobby, photo by maryn hobby

Many of us are eager to put 2020 in hindsight, and rightfully so. It’s been a tough one.  

 Taking care of your mental health, particularly when this season might feel less than merry, is critical. Scientists, physicians, and therapists know that repeated stress can wreak havoc on our minds and actually change our brains' physical makeup.   

 When you face a perceived threat, your brain’s tiny hypothalamus region signals nerves and hormones to alert your body to be ready for danger. This triggers an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, dilated pupils, and skyrocketing energy. As the primary stress hormone cortisol courses through our bodies, other systems that aren’t essential during a fight-or-flight scenario are repressed, including the immune system, digestion, reproduction, and growth.  

 A healthy brain will deal with the threat and return to normal function relatively quickly. The problem happens when you’re facing repeated stressors and your fight-or-flight function is perpetually in the “on” position. This long-term exposure to cortisol can lead to anxiety, depression, sleep disruption, trouble with digestion, headaches, heart disease, weight gain, and impaired memory or concentration. Genetics and life experiences are thought to play a role in how resilient you are to stress, but there are steps to mitigate its impacts on your life.  

Getting enough sleep, eating right, and exercise are all important, but another powerful weapon against stress is nature. Being outdoors is a powerful antidote when life starts feeling too heavy. Conventional wisdom tells us that fresh air and sunshine are mood lifters, but why? 

 Dennis W. Muri, LCSW, LAC, of Northwest Counseling Center, defines stress as the gap between perceived expectations, whether it's those we place on ourselves or expectations placed on us by others, and our ability to meet those expectations. The weight of those expectations might feel heavier right now; if you're expected to pay your bills but don't have a job, the ability to achieve that expectation and pay those bills is diminished.  

 "What we know, neuroscience-wise, is that when stress or anxiety or the fear of not being able to meet expectations gets too high, the smart, executive-functioning part of our brain starts shutting down and we shift into fight, flight, or freeze mode or survival mode,” Muri explains. “When people get out camping, into hiking, into nature, they basically get an escape, a brief but quality escape from their perception of the expectations. Pullout quote? Trees don’t expect a whole bunch from you, so that helps people get back into the smart part of their brains, which maintains a positive, affirming cycle.”  

Being able to look rationally at a situation also allows us to take a step back, achieve more and meet more expectations. “When we’re able to use the smart part of our brain, I can achieve more and meet more expectations, which then gives me a sense of boosting my ability to achieve the gaps, and stress seems to get smaller. It all perpetuates itself,” Muri said. 

 Several chemicals are at play. Dopamine is associated with instant gratification and doesn't last very long; it has a significant role in addictive behaviors. On the other hand, oxytocin is associated with deep, meaningful feelings of peace, often as a result of seeing hard work and dedication pay off. 

 Going out for a hike can be challenging and requires a commitment; it's not a dopamine-fueled rush that produces a euphoric high, which leaves you looking for the next thrill. Hiking, planting seeds in a garden, and being outdoors releases oxytocin because you've worked hard to enjoy the payout, whether it be fresh homegrown vegetables or a stunning view. Muri describes doing things like hiking, camping, and gardening as a slow-burning, delayed gratification kind of reward. “To me, it’s an investment, which means I’m giving up the immediate gratification and the expectation that I’m going to feel better this second,” Muri said.  

It's important to note that one hike - while it might feel good that day - won’t necessarily be enough to really change your brain. There is a saying that neurons that fire together wire together. The more we practice those relaxing experiences, the more our brains will tend to default to de-stressed states. “Getting out, away from the stress, can have an emotional intensity to it that can rewire our brain, it can give us hope,” Muri said, adding that neural networks are like muscles, so if you’re exercising your mental and emotional stress management “muscles,” the more likely your brain will be at peace.  

 The weather outside might be frightful, but there are plenty of benefits to getting out and enjoying all that Montana has to offer in winter. Skiing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, or even sledding with your kids (because hauling that sled up a steep hill is hard work with a super fun payout!) are all great options to boost your mood. So while there is definitely a place for cozy blankets, warm drinks, and books by the fire in the colder months, make sure to plan a few mood-boosting outdoor adventures too. 

Originally printed in the December 2020 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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