Nature Rx: The Outdoors Can Be an Antidote to Quarantine Anxiety
Getting outside is one way to relieve the stress of social distancing
Chances are, you’re starting to get a little cabin fever. Bars and restaurants in many cities and states are closed, sports have been canceled, and governments from California to New York City are ordering residents to shelter in place. There are only so many programs you can binge watch or hours you can bear reading, and your news feed is full of frightening headlines. If you’ve got kids, the close quarters are probably making the household a little maddening.
Here’s a suggestion: For an antidote to isolation, get out into nature. You don’t have to go all that far. Find some way to make a trip to your nearest woodlot, creek, regional open space area, seashore, or hillside. Take the dog for a walk. Sit in your backyard or garden. As long as you’re able to do so in a way that meets the recommendations for social distancing, figure out how to get outside however you can.
This pandemic has made it feel like the world has turned awry on its axis. The instincts we’ve learned in other crises are poorly matched to this moment. In the midst of natural disasters like floods, storms, and wildfires, we are called on to come together. Now, we’re being called on to stay apart. Yet even as we must distance ourselves from one another to protect public health, nature remains one place where we can find a feeling of reconnection.
I have always felt solace in natural areas. This weekend, spending an afternoon in the woods provided an especially potent dose of relief.
On Sunday morning, my four-year-old daughter, Lily, woke up with a cough, which was obviously freaky. My Twitter feed was full of dark reports from Europe and people’s stories of dodging other humans as best they could. It was difficult not to feel anxious and fearful.
Pancakes perked us all up. After I made an early trip to the farmers' market (the baker was nearly out of loaves, and the egg monger was quickly on her way to selling out), the family got motivated for a walk in the woods. Our destination was Briones Regional Park, a 6,200-acre preserve of California woodland and savanna no more than a painless 20-minute drive from Oakland.
I told Lily we were on a mission to hunt rainbows. It had been raining steadily all morning, and as the sun swung past noon, the sky was clearing, giving us excellent conditions to trap our quarry. After a trailhead snack of PB&J and apples, we crossed Bear Creek—muddy after the night of rain—and made our way into the forest of madrone, bay, and live oak.
I’m sorry to say we didn’t snag a rainbow. We did, however, spend a good amount of time inspecting the languid pace of a couple of newts. And there were birds: the usual lot of sparrow flocks and juncos, chickadees, jays squealing, turkeys glimpsed in the distance. When we got to the picnic area at Homestead Valley, we finished a Clif Bar and made a salad of miner’s lettuce. Lily decided to turn herself into a “mud monster.”
It was nothing, really. Little more than an opportunity to feel the rhythms of the real world and a chance for some playtime. Yet I experienced an overwhelming sense of—what else to call it?—peace.
Nature’s sublime has always been, for many people, a solace. Cutting-edge science has confirmed that time in natural areas helps us cope with stress and lowers anxiety. And who couldn’t use a dose of calm right now, when the most virulent contagion seems to be fear? You don’t have to go to some far-off national park to get the proven health benefits of nature. (And, actually, you shouldn't; the last thing that mountain towns and national park gateway communities need right now is an influx of people potentially infected with the virus. Also, Yosemite and Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Parks in California and Rocky Mountain National Park have closed to all visitors and portions of Point Reyes National Seashore have been shut.) Most of us find our most intimate relationships with the more-than-human in nearby nature—some path through suburban woods, the city-side beachscape, the garden full of birds. At a time like this, such places can reground us. They provide perspective: a reminder of different time scales, proof of resilience and recovery. That’s a balm we need now more than ever.
In natural areas, we also get a good measure of space, a feeling of the world as big and wide. During the massive Western wildfires of recent summers, the choking smoke and darkened skies forced millions of people indoors and left many of us feeling like digital shut-ins. Above all, this crisis is characterized by an even more intense feeling of claustrophobia (at least for those of us who aren’t grappling with layoffs or illness). Evacuate? Where would you go? Suddenly, there is no away.
But even in a viral pandemic, what nature provides is a space apart. That is, a place (mostly) beyond the human-built. On a hike or a beach stroll, you rarely have to worry about touching metal or glass or plastic. No matter the landscape, you’ll be in the open air. Get outside and you can get a cure for the quarantine’s claustrophobia. Plus, touching soil and earth has been shown to have immune-system benefits—consider it a virtuous side effect.
There’s already some talk about how this pandemic could overturn long-standing cultural norms. In many ways that’s frightening (who wants to give up high fives?), but in other ways, it might be salutatory. Maybe if we are able to take more relief in nature, we can create a new kind of agora, the ancient Greek ideal of the public sphere. Maybe we can create a nature-based public square that is not all about the buying and selling of stuff and the entertainment of food and drink, but instead a public square that is, truly, out in the open (and, by the way, not a square at all but something closer to the circle of natural systems). Nature can play a valuable role in this pandemic as the outdoors becomes one of the remaining places where we can connect with other people in a safe fashion—a space where we can enjoy the presence of others even as we maintain a safe distance.
On Sunday afternoon, the parking lot at the Bear Creek trailhead was as full as I’d normally expect for a rainy and cold tail-of-winter day. While we were in the park, we crossed paths with many other folks. The usual dog walkers. A teenage dude on his way to the archery range. A dad with two little kids. A family with teenagers. Some equestrians.
While everyone was mindful of keeping a careful distance, there was none of the pent-up anxiety in random human interactions I’ve been feeling in my neighborhood. I think I noticed more smiles. At the very least, people seemed natural with each other in a way that has already come to seem rare.
At one point, we came across a crew of older hikers—a vulnerable population, one might say—and one of the women joked about how this was “the best sort of social distancing.” She was right. Only in the outdoors do we find a place to stay safely apart yet still be together.