Jing Jiang / Sun Senior Photographer

At one with nature: Cornell student reading on the Arts Quad.

March 25, 2020

De-Stressing in Nature: How Being Outside Can Provide Comfort During COVID-19

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Professors weigh in on the psychological effects nature has on our well-being in the time of the COVID-19 crisis.

As the coronavirus continues to spread throughout the country, many Cornellians have found themselves trapped in their houses due to increasingly strict quarantine and “stay-at-home” measures.

Currently, about half of U.S. states have imposed governmental lockdowns that have affected more than 100 million Americans.

While harsh restrictions can severely impact people’s daily lives, research has shown that spending time in nature can be beneficial to mental health.

“Nature clearly has an impact on our thoughts, emotions, belief systems, and psyches,” said Prof. Aaron Sachs, history.

Sachs teaches a variety of environmental history courses, and has required his students in History 2581: Environmental History to spend an hour in nature for their third paper assignment.

“For many people, myself included, nature can offer a sense of peace and belonging, can provoke curiosity, can provide an alternative to self-obsessive tendencies, and can open windows to processes of historical change,” he said.

Prof. Donald Rakow, horticulture, co-authored a book called Nature RX, which explains that science has repeatedly found time in nature to be valuable to our well-being.

“There is a considerable amount of research that has been published that shows there are psychological, physiological, and attitudinal benefits to spending time in nature,” Rakow said.

Prof. Nancy Wells, design and environmental analysis, also specializes in researching the connection between the outdoors and personal wellness. According to her, there is a wide variety of empirical evidence that clearly documents how time in, and views of, nature beneficially affect our mental health.

“Studies have shown that a 90 minute walk in nature is suggested to reduce rumination — the repetition of negative thoughts, which is a risk factor for mental illness –– and lower levels of neural activity in an area of the brain linked to mental health risks,” Wells said.

Retreating to the outdoors, however, is not limited to those who live near wilderness. Rakow explained that even the most urban cities in the U.S. and Canada have parks that can provide a natural experience that allows people to escape the routine parts of their days.

“When we are in nature, we are communicating with nature,” Rakow said.

Max Pfeffer, executive dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said that nature is, not just beneficial, but perhaps even essential for our well-being.

“[This is] something to think about as we get outdoors to clear our minds, gather our thoughts, and try to stay healthy. I personally will be taking a long walk this afternoon,” Pfeffer said.

Wells noted that, beyond mental health, it is well-documented that spending time outdoors is a vital way to stay physically healthy  — something that is especially important during the current pandemic.

“Make time for a walk every day. Find a route through a park or natural area. Whether you walk in solitude or six feet away from a friend, nature is likely to benefit your mental health,” Wells said.

In the face of a tumultuous COVID-19 pandemic, spending just even a little time in nature may help to alleviate some of the stress from often isolating stay-at-home measures.

“The evidence that nature bolsters psychological well-being and buffers the impacts of stress and adversity on mental health can be leveraged in our benefit,” Wells said.