In an article for Sixty and Me I talked about how naturally occurring patterns in nature, also called fractals, are perfect for relieving stress. And that is important for you to know because your health care provider usually does not have enough time or resources to focus on anything other than medications, diagnostic testing, and perhaps a single piece of advice.
And that’s the situation I found myself in when I was retiring as a nursing professor and was diagnosed with a serious autoimmune disease. Lupus erythematosus is a chronic illness, with no cure, where the body attacks itself. I was put on medication and told to avoid the sun.
At first, I was the perfect patient. I took the medication and stayed inside for almost a year. But I was feeling miserable. My emotional and mental health were suffering. It was only when I saw a comment on a forum for other lupus patients, where a fellow sufferer said that she felt so much better by going outside, that I decided I was going to give it a try.
Almost immediately, once I stepped into the woods, I began to feel my old spark for life again. I even felt free and happy – like I did before the diagnosis. I realized that once I was outside looking around, the scary thoughts in my mind drifted off, I stopped trying to figure out how to get better, and just let things be.
This state of mind, this love and trust for life again is what I began to treasure and call my outside mindset. As I spent more and more time outside walking, nothing on paper changed. My specialized bloodwork (anti-nuclear antibodies) in my medical chart still showed that my particular lupus condition was at the serious end of the lupus severity of illness continuum.
But in terms of my attitude and what I could do with my life, everything had changed. My thinking loosened up. I wasn’t trying to control my disease anymore. I felt good about myself and my world around me. I started to live my life again rather than fighting what happened. My life felt transformed.
The first green space research on outside mindset was done by Gregory Bratman at Stanford University. His work showed that time in green space quells “negative rumination” or overthinking. Negative rumination is when worries or thoughts keep coming up in your mind. Your phrases often start with “what if,” “if only” and “why”.
You keep this to yourself because you are sure that you will figure out the answers. But there is no solution. What’s worse, turning these thoughts over and over again makes you more stressed. And to top it off, because you keep these thoughts to yourself, you won’t seek help about them.
It was amazing to me to find out that there is a place in the brain where these researchers measured negative rumination thought waves (in the subgenal prefrontal cortex by MRI). And more amazing to find out that this negative repeating thinking got quiet in green space. Discovering this was the reason I decided to write my first book, Take Back Your Outside Mindset: Live Longer, Stress Less, and Control Your Chronic Illness.
In my life, bad things have happened where I spent hours dwelling on problems. I realize now that I could have short circuited that pain by going outside. That’s the problem with us human beings, when things like illness or loss happen we go into negative rumination.
But this kind of thinking is like quicksand unless you can pull yourself out or someone pulls you out, you sink. Basically, getting outside is like someone giving you a helping hand out of that quicksand.
My tip for you today is to notice worries that keep coming up in your mind when you are inside. See what happens to these when you get outside. Try to see an extended tree branch as your helping hand to get out of your rumination quicksand… as you take back your outside mindset.
How often do you go outside? Have you noticed improvement in your mindset when going outside? Do you tend to ruminate on past choices and life decisions?
Tags Healthy Aging
I love being outside. I told my grandchildren that blue and green must be God’s favorite colors because He chose them for the sky, water, forests, and grass. I’m sure He also knew they have a calming effect on us. Listening to the birds, frogs, and crickets, smelling honeysuckle, and enjoying colorful flowers lift your spirit and are cheaper than therapy.
Hi Karen, Thank you for painting us a beautiful picture of the benefits of nature. Those lucky grandchildren! Keep up your outside mindset, Verla
I have cutaneous lupus (of the skin). Go outside. Use sunscreen always. It makes a good moisturizer. You’ll feel better for sure. Make sure your vitamin D levels are checked every 6 months. That makes a huge difference.
Jan your words are music to my ears! Thank you so much. Those of us with lupus need to hear your message over and over again. Keep up your outside mindset, Verla
I walk outside everyday, unless the weather is bad, whether I feel like it or not. It always makes me feel better emotionally and physically. I struggled with anxiety and depression most of my adult life until I retired and started walking. Every season brings beautiful things to look at and enjoy. I see others walking talking on their phone which, to me, negates all the positive benefits of really enjoying nature.
Yes!! Like you I have, and still do, struggle with anxiety and depression. Across from where I live is a woods, golf course and retreat. The dog and I walk twice a day and we love it. Each season brings its challenges (too much snow, thistles, heat) and we enjoy the beauty of nature-birds, deer, coyote, flowers, etc. now I know why it makes me feel so much better!
Hi Anne, I love that your dogs help you with your outside mindset habit. And yes, we can enjoy at the same time as we are aware of the challenges. I love your idea of holding the two opposites together out there. Thank you, Verla
Hi Kim, Good for you! Yes noticing new things in our environment boosts the health benefits of green space and yes it is so much better to be with nature. Isn’t it amazing what retirement can give us if we make it about reclaiming our outside mindset? Enjoy your peace and freedom out there – and I will too :)
What an interesting article! You have reminded me to be more mindful of when and where I feel the best and stop those nagging thoughts, thank you!
Thank you Kate for taking the time to comment. Yes let’s keep taking back our outside mindset over and over again. It’s fun to notice as you say. We’ve got this, Verla
Brilliant your so right
Hi Amanda, Thank you for letting me know that we are on the same page. Keep taking your outside mindset, Verla