Mental Wanderings in the Woods
Updated: Nov 12, 2020
by Angela Buckley
The science is out! Walking in the woods reduces cortisol levels. For those of us who have been hiking in the woods for decades, it comes as no surprise that hiking reduces stress. Few activities are more rejuvenating than spending time in nature. The Japanese recommend forest bathing. The Germans take walking vacations. Some hotels are well-situated along walking paths, so vacationers can hike in comfort: they don’t need to heavy equipment and meals and showers are easily available at the end of the day. Water is provided at the front desk specifically for these wandering vacationers. Clearly members of these cultures get it.
The skeptics and the scientists, though, need proof. Recently, more and more scientists have studied the effects of nature on the stress hormone cortisol. Studies have shown that just 20 minutes of looking at green space reduces cortisol levels. Walking in an urban environment does not significantly reduce cortisol levels but walking in a green space provides the greatest impact of the scenarios studied.
As a manager in a Fortune 500, full-time doctoral student, mom, wife, and entrepreneur…I might have a personal experience or two with high stress and cortisol levels, which is why my son and I spend so many hours hiking and backpacking. During this pandemic time-period, we must care for our mental health as well as our physical health. If I can gift my pre-teen one thing in life, it will be a love of nature. I have been strategically increasing the distances and the difficulty of terrain as he develops. Our most recent pandemic hike was trying on the trail but rewarding in its destination.
All did not go as planned…
We started a circuitous route to reach a remote mountain lake. We were excited. This hike would be his first experience swimming in a remote mountain lake. Generally, a walk in the woods is peaceful but anyone who has hiked low ridges in the Adirondacks in June will know that the flies attack ferociously. A constant buzzing accompanied us down the trail. You can pick your poison for bug spray, but none of it is 100% effective. Long stretches of hiking under these conditions test your mental fortitude. My son was struggling to maintain a positive attitude. After three hours of hiking, even the dog found new coping mechanisms.
That is exactly what I am trying to do: as a mother and developer of leaders, I intentionally want my son to be in difficult (but safe) situations. Instructional design studies in both children and adults demonstrate that we grow most when we triumph over challenges. It is critical to get the challenge right: the situation must be difficult, but success is key to the learning. Nature helps us by providing challenges while also keeping our cortisol levels down.
The challenge of hiking in the Adirondacks is that some trails are very well marked. Others have fallen into neglect. Still others are marked for winter activities instead of summer hiking. You never quite know which statement applies to which trail. We missed our turnoff to the lake – as in, that trail no longer exists. Instead of bushwhacking, we elected to return to a better marked trail (and away from the flies!) A hike that was supposed to be 4-6 miles turned into 15 miles. As mom, I was prepared: enough food for a pre-teen boy, water purifier, and a source of fire. Nonetheless, after 2-3 hours, the grumbling started.
Here is where mental fortitude is developed. He was worried about his dog. The dog was fine. He was hungry. We already ate. Didn’t we already walk far enough? We could go home and come back another day. Oh, and did I mention the flies? It is amazing how unfair life is when flies are buzzing you. Negative memories come flooding in. This time is when we must intentionally practice positive imagery and fortitude development. I’m not going lie: there was a period of 30 minutes on the trail where his pre-teen-ness was showing itself in all its glory. No amount of green was overcoming my mom-stress in those moments. However, we got to higher elevation (fewer flies). And, we arrived at our destination.
We did not set out for a mental development hike. We expected a reasonably easy day hike: day to rejuvenate and de-stress in nature. Our plan had been 4-6 miles round trip, a couple of hours playing at the lake. The day turned out to be much longer. At one point, the boy wanted to simply give up. By pushing through, he learned how strong his body is. By continuing to hike, he learned more about how to control his mind and his emotions.
The journey to mental fortitude is personal and long. To become stronger, we must challenge ourselves. We must also know how to recover. We call these challenges mental push-ups. Nature supports part of the recovery necessary for our mind and body by reducing our cortisol levels. Take a hike. Push yourself just a little farther.
Ewert, A., & Chang, Y. (2018). Levels of Nature and Stress Response. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 8(5), 49. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs8050049
Hiromitsu, K., Chorong, S., Harumi, I., Bum-Jin, P., Takahide, K., Yoshifumi, M. (2019). Combined Effect of Walking and Forest Environment on Salivary Cortisol Concentration. Frontiers in Public Health. DOI=10.3389/fpubh.2019.00376
Angela Buckley is the principal at Creatively Efficient. She is the author of the Strength in Nature leadership series. She is currently finishing her Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership.