Staying Grounded: How Nature Preserves Sanity in College

The holidays are a time of year typically associated with stress, hurry, busyness and consumerism. In college, this season is often filled with other pressures…finishing off the semester in one last push of projects, papers and final exams. If you’re feeling mounting tension and anxiety, there is an often-untapped mental health resource that’s as close as your front door: the great outdoors!

Who hasn’t experienced that crazy and unexpected release that comes from a walk in the rain? Or gotten happy chills when looking up into a starlit sky? Or felt a sense of inner peace from feeling the sun on your face or wind in your hair? God’s amazing creation is right at our fingertips and He is eager to speak to us through it, and yet we are often so immersed in our cluttered culture of nonstop communication, fast-paced technology and information (much of it trivial) that we fail to take advantage.

Whether your gig is jogging along a pine-scented riverfront trail, or sitting serenely at a park bench taking in the sound of birdsong or flowing fountains, a regular venture outside will do more for your health—mentally, physically and even spiritually–than you can imagine! Here are just a few of the benefits to taking a break in nature this season:

  • Stress Reduced; Sleep Improved. Studies show that outdoor settings decrease cortisol levels connected with stress. This, in turn, improves sleep, which in turn helps in dealing with stress. And the healthy cycle continues! Vitamin D (also called the “sunshine vitamin” because we absorb it through our skin when we are outside) has been linked to increased immunity, reduced depression and boosted weight loss. It is also needed for the health of our bones and teeth. One study followed two hundred individuals on a three-day trip to the woods, and found that by the end, the majority experienced a dramatic increase in white blood cell counts (necessary for fighting off disease). Even more impressive was the fact that the white blood cell counts stayed elevated for the next 30 days! Talk about a health benefit of being outdoors!
  • Mental Clarity. Even getting outside for five or ten minutes can bring a sense of restful pause. Breathing fresh air has been shown to lower heart rates, improve mood, and increase memory, productivity and concentration. What college student isn’t desperate for all those things? One Stanford study showed that those who had taken time to slow down in nature showed less obsession afterwards with their personal problems. Perhaps this is linked, for believers, with the invitation God gives us to “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Peace comes from reflecting on Who’s in control and where we find our help and strength (Psalm 121).
  • Increased Sense of Purpose. Along with mental clarity, being in creation—whether actively moving or simply taking a calming breather–has a way of renewing our sense of purpose. Nature-loving writer Walt Emerson said, “In the woods, we return to reason and faith.” Mental health researcher Paul Piff deduced that the as we experience awe, in the light of nature’s grandeur, we are inspired to acts of kindness. It’s an interesting concept, but certainly not contradictory to Scripture. Notice the humility expressed in the psalmist’s words after gazing at creation: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3-4). Jesus himself taught us to “consider the birds of the air” and the “flowers of the field” and then went on to talk about the foolishness of worry and the need to seek first His kingdom (Matthew 6:25-34). Scripture actually contains hundreds of verses about God’s glory being reflected and experienced in creation! So why not grab a jacket and some sturdy shoes and take a few minutes to immerse yourself in the world He’s made?

Your access to nature may be immense or limited, depending upon your location. If your college campus is conveniently situated near mountains, the ocean, or one of our nation’s beautiful national parks, taking a hike, bike ride or exploratory outing may not take much creativity. Alternatively, if you’re smack in the middle of a thriving metropolis, you may have to do a little research to discover the walking trails, municipal parks or nature reserves closest to you. But the bottom line is: make the effort and get outside! It will be time well spent.