Episode 110: Stress and the Benefits of Being Outside

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…a show for summer. We all used to spend a lot more time outside. And it’s still one of the best ways to combat stress – particularly for women…

“We are fully engaged with our sensory and perceptual systems in ways that make us feel alive and vital and healthy rather than being buffeted around by these expectations of how women are supposed to behave or look.”

Coming up, how nature and being outside can help us manage life and work.

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I am an urban person. I grew up in a city, moved to another city for college, I worked in London for a few years and then I moved to New York – the ultimate metropolis. And I thought I’d always live in a city. I couldn’t imagine life otherwise. There’s so much to do, so much creative energy, so many jobs.

But in recent years big city living has begun to feel old. Or maybe it’s just me. But increasingly I find the noise and the crowds and the jostling on the subway is just too much. And I’ve noticed something else – the more time I spend outside, in nature, the calmer I feel. Work stress or stress in general seems to bother me less when I’m looking at a lake or a field or a mountain.

A couple of months ago I came across a book by science writer Florence Williams. It’s called The Nature Fix. Its subtitle is ‘why nature makes us happier, healthier and more creative.’

Of course I picked it up.

Florence is a contributing editor to Outside Magazine, and she also hosts the Outside podcast.

She’s done a lot of reporting and research for this book. Among many other things she found women can benefit more than men from spending time outside, in a natural setting.

I started by asking why she’d tackled this subject in the first place.

AM-T: “What were some of the things that prompted you to write this book The Nature Fix that I enjoyed so much?”

“Oh, thanks Ashley. Well I guess it began with my personal journey. I spent two decades living in the Rocky Mountains. You know really my entire adult life, and then my husband took a job in Washington D.C. and we had to move.

And it was really a hard adjustment for me to go from being so nature connected almost on an hourly basis, to living in the middle of the city, and experiencing the noise and the sort of monochromatic cityscape, just the sort of busy ness and the urban built environment. And I noticed some changes in my own kind of emotional state, in my psychological state, that weren’t so good. More anxiety, I certainly wasn't sleeping so well, I was depressed. I mean some of that is just transition you know, from that time of life. But I think also I started thinking about how the environment affects our emotional states.”

And right around this time Outside gave her an assignment – to go to Japan and write about forest bathing…this practice where overworked city types immerse themselves in nature…

“Stressed out urbanites go to the woods for 15 or 20 minutes and just kind of practice being mindful in the woods and kind of de-stressing. And it's something that's being really promoted by the government in Japan. You know as a way to help their workers who are the most overworked population you know in the world basically, they work the longest hours, and they're really stressed out. There's high rates of depression and suicide. And at the same time researchers are studying what's happening to these people's physiology after 15 or 20 minutes in the woods.

And so I went to Japan, I saw that people's blood pressures were dropping, their heart rates were changing, their stress hormones were changing. And that there really was science you know behind this. And so I think that's really what launched the book. I just felt like there's enough to write about and I'm personally interested in what the science has to say about you know this idea of nature deficit disorder.”

Nature deficit disorder. A lot of us have it. Most of us live and work in urban environments. In the US in particular you can drive from home to office to supermarket and back home without even walking a block. And many of our jobs are screen-based and sedentary…

“…you know it seems like mentally and cognitively when we're kind of inside responding to emails all the time, staring at screens, you know being kind of reactive to the massive amounts of information coming to us that it creates a certain amount of fatigue. You know cognitive fatigue, and that translates into emotional fatigue and a little bit of strain and grumpiness, and all this may be happening on a pretty subconscious level. But it looks like when we are able to kind of take a break, go outside, get a little bit of relief and a little bit of maybe sensory stimulation, that it can really reboot us, it can re-boot us cognitively, studies show that after short breaks, looking for example at grass and trees we come back to the tasks at hand fresher. Our working memory is a little bit better, our cognitive processing is a little bit faster after we get that break. And so I think that's a great lesson. That we need to know that by taking a break we're not just taking ourselves out of productivity, that we're actually making ourselves more productive when we go back.”

AM-T: “Yeah, I think that's the hard one for people to at least for workaholics or type-A personalities who abound in cities to get their heads around, right? That you're not slacking off. You're actually helping yourself to be more efficient at work.”

“Exactly, and you see enlightened companies really starting to understand this and embrace it. You know a lot of the high-tech companies in Silicon Valley, they now have walking trails on the roof. They have roof gardens. Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook takes walking meetings. So I think you know in some parts of the workspace there's this kind of understanding that yes, this is actually good for productivity. But I think it is hard for individuals to kind of know to take that break, and we don't pay a lot of attention to how we feel after we take a break. And that's one of the points that I really make in the book is that we need to pay attention to how we feel in these different environments, kind of tune in a little bit more because there's so much individual variation to when people go outside, and some people love looking at the ocean and some people hate looking at the ocean and feel threatened by it. And we just don't necessarily tend to pay attention to where and how we feel best. And I think that that's a really lost opportunity.”

AM-T: “Yeah. I want to talk more about the…what we can do about this for ourselves and our own health. I mean some of us are lucky enough to be able to spend time outside of cities when we live in cities. I mean most every summer that I've been living in the U.S. I've gone to a lake in Pennsylvania most weekends of the summer. And one thing I've noticed especially in recent years, so it's definitely for me related to getting older, is that I'll go on Friday night and my head will be full of the things that I didn't finish during the week. I am going to get those things done at the weekend! You know when I'm there you know there'll be no e-mail coming in. Great time to finish off all that work. When I get there, or when I wake up on Saturday morning and I'm in this incredibly quiet atmosphere. And I can see the water, and  I can hear birds and it's so peaceful, I feel entirely different about my work. It just doesn't seem as important anymore. It doesn't it doesn't have the same power over me that it did on Friday night when I just spent the entire week working.”

“Exactly. Exactly. And the studies really back that up, that when we experience natural beauty you know specifically sort of awe, the emotion of awe, which has typically been an understudied emotion but is now really being looked at as kind of one of the neglected positive emotions that we could learn something from, what they're finding is that it really helps slow our perception of time when we experience natural beauty we suddenly feel less stressed out, we feel like we have more time to solve these problems. Maybe they don't become as important, and our own personal problems also recede and we tend to feel more connected to other people which I think is really interesting. So you know there's this way that being in nature in some ways makes us more fit for civilization because it does make us more community minded, makes us feel more connected to each other. And also it can take us out of what are sometimes debilitating personal playbacks of our own issues and problems, and it gives us greater perspective.”

Who wouldn’t want that?

AM-T: “My show focuses on women's experiences in life but particularly work. What does your work life balance feel like or what did it feel like when you decided to write the book. I mean did it change when you moved to D.C. or not particularly?   Was it the same set of things, you were just in different circumstances?”

“Yeah, that's a good question. I would say I'm still trying to get a handle on how to have a balanced work life situation and part of that is I have two kids you know. And you know a full time job. And so it's always a struggle I think to balance, and to feel balanced and to also have some you know personal time and exercise time and all that. So it's something I struggle with. And when I moved to D.C. I would say you know it just felt a little more intense. I mean D.C. is it's just a hyper urban environment. It takes longer to get anywhere. You know the traffic is horrible. My kids were going to school kind of in a different part of town and you know I would have to spend a fair amount of time driving them around in traffic. And also you know in an unfamiliar geography, so I would end up in these traffic circles you know being cut off by very impatient commuters and I would just start cursing and crying and feeling overwhelmed.

I think my kids were like oh my God, Mom, maybe we should go to school a little closer.

You know so we did, and we adjusted that. Now the kids go to neighborhood schools. You know I had to sort of figure that out. But I think anytime you move it's kind of demanding right, because you have to find new everything new grocery stores new eye doctors, new pediatricians. It's all just like, your workload I think gets really intense. Plus the D.C. work culture itself is more intense.”

She says Boulder, where they had been living, it attracts people who are seeking a more balanced lifestyle – they’re less career-driven, more lifestyle driven. They’re into yoga, meditation, hiking and biking, eating right. She says DC is full of the best and the brightest, but it just felt so different. Not only were there a lot more people but there were a lot fewer trees. And it didn’t help that their house was right under the flight path.

In a minute, we talk about how being outside can help women in particular, and Florence comes to terms with her new surroundings.

So I knew Florence had done her own reporting on how women benefit from being outdoors.

AM-T: “In a recent issue of Outside that was dedicated to women really you have this great piece on Girl Scouts and it was about…you shadowed a whole group of Girl Scouts who were out in the wilderness and they were sort of achieving feats outdoors… What I took away from it was, it was this idea of being outdoors in a group helping each other that took the focus away from some of the things that can kind of bedevil teenage girls like self-consciousness and screens and meanness from other people. Social media, all that. It was so interesting. I mean they're really young. But all that stuff, that bad stuff can really start women on the road to feeling less than. And that their looks are the most important thing about them. I mean do you think grown women can experience some of that? Can learn some of the same things that those young girls learned from being outside for a concentrated period of time?”

“Oh yeah, absolutely. I really do. There's been some really interesting studies looking at for example self-esteem, leadership, confidence and time outside.

And we know, for example REI is in the middle of this campaign called force of nature and they've done some internal studies as well, or some surveys. And what it really shows is that the time what women spend outside as girls kind of having adventures and doing sports outside, the more confidence they have as adults. And the more they experience gender equity for example in their careers, the more confidence they have, the more leadership. And I think that definitely translates, can translate into time outside for women. You know any time that we're using our bodies and enjoying the strength you know and the skills and the coordination of our muscles, we are not thinking so much about how we look. We're thinking about how our bodies work. And I think that's really important jump for women to make because society just tells us that our looks are so important and it's hard, you know. I mean as girls I think were especially vulnerable to that. But as grown women we are too. You know those messages really don't cease, sadly. It's kind of the dominant message that the media still gives us. And yet I think when we're outside they're just, there are no mirrors. We're with friends. We're in a more supportive potentially social environment. We are fully engaged with our sensory and perceptual systems in ways that make us feel alive and vital and healthy, rather than just kind of being buffeted around by these more social and perceptual expectations of how women are supposed to behave or look."

AM-T: “And actually when you were talking that reminded me there will be someone women listening to this who can’t be active outside, whether it's through illness or disability, they can't enjoy their bodies the way many of us can because our bodies work for us. I mean what do we know about being outside for people who don't have full use of their limbs for instance? I mean are the benefits of nature still there?”

“Absolutely. I mean people who can't fully exercise or be active in nature still have their sensory systems right, largely intact. So they're still able to somehow, the wonderful smells of springtime or drink in the visuals of the sunset. Experience the night sky or the changing phases of the moon. So there's still a full sensory engagement even if it's not necessarily on an aerobic level and that's OK. I mean exercising in nature is one thing but sitting in nature, connecting to nature, is fully another and incredibly valuable. I've been contacted by a number of people since I wrote this book. You know many of whom share with me that they're not able to fully run a river or climb a mountain but they still find nature to be tremendously healing, tremendously powerful and they're still able to find that nature connection. And I think you know, that's a beautiful thing.”

AM-T: “Definitely. And in any of your work, I mean this didn't really come out in the book, the book was written for everyone. But I ask again because my emphasis is on women. Do you think that there…Do you see any difference in the ways in which men and women benefit from nature?  I mean I think women, traditionally if you look at all the statistics women or women who work full time and have families are still doing more. I don't know if this applies to you, but on the home front, than the male partner. And I wonder if you think women may be cutting themselves off from nature more than guys because they feel more time strapped.”

“Yes, I've given quite a bit of thought to this question of how men and women may experience nature differently and also how they may benefit from it differentially. And I would say that there are some really interesting differences.

Yes, we know that women are more stressed out and more depressed than their male counterparts. Part of that is because we are pulled in so many different directions domestically and in our work lives, we're taking care of different generations, older parents, we're taking care of kids. We are sometimes cut off you know from the kind of community and social and family support that women got when we lived closer to families and in clan groups and you know in kinships and so on. So we know that women, for example in the United States, women are on antidepressants at a rate of one out of four. Women in middle age. And I think that's a shocking statistic and kind of speaks to the problem. We also know that girls tend to be more depressed than boys. They're at higher risk for suicide. I'm sorry to report that the fastest growing rate of suicides is in young girls ages 10 to 14, which is I think shocking. Andpart of that is that women have this burden of expectations. And society expects them to work and behave a certain way. And now you know with Instagram and Internet culture it's all just become I think harder to be a girl in some ways. But it's always been hard.

But we also know that women when they do go outside may experience bigger benefits and maybe that's because they're more stressed when they start.

But there have been studies showing that women who live closer to greenspace actually experience greater benefits in terms of their mortality in terms of their stress cortisol regulation than men do. So when women can access nature and can experience it they actually may be better helped. And there's some really interesting studies looking at kids for example even in forced kindergartens. And I really like the study I think it's really interesting in conventional sort of urban playgrounds. Boys tend to run around more than girls do. You know the girls kind of sit and play their games the boys run around and do kind of sporty stuff. But in the forest schools where both genders are outside most of the day the girls are approaching parity with the boys in terms of physical exercise. So they're also out there jumping across the creeks and climbing the trees and swimming from the ropes.

And so I love that we don't really tend to think of nature as being kind of gender neutralizing or equalizing and it can be. And so I think it's an important way to look at…and also you know kind of another excuse to really make a bigger effort to get girls outside because the benefits are bigger.”

Which is fascinating and great to know. But let’s face it…if you live far from the wilderness, getting there can be a challenge. Or enough of a hassle to put you off doing it regularly. So what’s a city dweller to do?

AM-T: “Just talking about cities and you now live in a city, I live in a city and yes we can get benefits from going to parks but I'm speaking to you on… I think it's going to be 92 degrees today, high humidity. Heat warnings, all the rest of it here. Being outside, I mean they’re not even advising you to be outside I mean obviously today is a worst case scenario for me, but for people who aren't able to regularly get out of a city, I mean what can they do? If they seek out a park in a city is that something?"

“Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean the reality is Ashley that most of us do live in cities right around the world over 50 percent of people live in cities. That number is increasing you know hugely every year in the United States. 70 percent of us live in cities. So we really have to figure out how to access nature in a city. And I've had to figure that out was part of my move and I feel like I've really made a lot of progress in terms of kind of learning how to do it. Yes we need to get outside. We need to think about even how we position our computers. You know is it that we're looking at nearby nature you know in the backyard or on the street. We can change the way we walk through cities to take more tree-lined streets and then I'd have to learn how to really be mindful in those more nature-y spaces to get the full benefits.

So for example if I'm in a city park I really will try to take my ear buds out and I will try not to multitask while I'm in that space because the studies, the science really shows that when we are multitasking, when we're talking on the phone we're just not getting the full restorative benefits of being outside. We really kind of need to be listening to the birdsong and looking for the birds, maybe looking at fractal patterns which I talk about some in the book, you know drinking in that color green which we know also provide some calm to people.

But it takes an intention and it takes some effort. And if you're just kind of like blindly marching through the park on your way to the bus you know and thinking about your deadlines you're just not going to get the full the full bang for it.”

She says as for the summer heat, she goes for walks in DC once the sun has gone down. And she also says don’t be tempted to stay inside just because it’s cold or blustery outside. Studies show we get cognitive benefits from being outdoors even when it’s freezing or pouring. We just come back that bit sharper than when we left.  

AM-T: “And finally, I’m just wondering about this. I'm becoming more and more envious of women who work outdoors or at least in a natural setting. Do we know anything about whether those women are happier and less stressed than those of us who toil over a computer screen most of the day?”

“Great question. I don't think we really do know. I don't think we really drill down. We do know that women who live closer to greenspace are healthier. And that's from studies in the U.S., large scale epidemiological studies and the Nurses’ Health Study in the United States which is being studied by Harvard, has really recently come out with some very telling statistics. That the nurses who live closer to greenspace sort of within a quarter mile of greenspace have lower rates of depression, they have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, they have lower rates of cancer, interestingly, lower rates of stress, and they think that this is all sort of mediated by depression so that women who live closer to greenspace just feel better. Are happier people. And so you know it's important to think about, I think, as we do move around and as we migrate you know to different cities or to different neighborhoods that we really should place a premium on trees, on parks, you know these things end up really mattering toward daily stress levels and ultimately to our health.”

Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix and contributing editor at Outside Magazine

That’s The Broad Experience for this time.

I know some of you work outside and it’s not always on a pristine mountaintop, and I’d love to hear from you. You can comment on this episode at TheBroadExperience.com or on the show’s Facebook page or you can tweet me or email me.

The rest of you…go outside!

And if you want more podcasts about inspiring women, take a listen to Inflection Point with Lauren Schiller. She talks with women who have faced a challenge, stepped up to create change and are ready to tell their stories... so we can find out how women rise up--and how we can apply what they've learned, to our own lives. Check it out. Inflection Point with Lauren Schiller, you can find it in iTunes, RadioPublic, or wherever you get your podcasts."

So if you have some extra time this August listen to Lauren’s show, go back through the archives of my show – there are a lot of back episodes to enjoy. I hope you enjoy what’s left of your summer.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. I will see you in September.