I wait, patiently poised at the stoplight, one foot on the ground, the other resting on the pedal. The noxious smell of unidentifiable smoke permeates the air as cars wiz past, a constant hum of steady traffic. But across the street, lined with tall evergreen giants, is the wooded entrance to wonderland.
As the light switches to green, I hoist myself back up and cross the divide from concrete to gravel. And everything changes. And as I peddle deeper into the park around another bend in the path, the sounds of the city totally fade away.
I bike along the river until I notice a spot of exposed bank and immediately pull to the side of the path (because why not?). I drop my bike, and walk out onto the bank that extends into the middle of the river.
And then I just lay down on the rocks, and smile to myself, because I can smell the dirt and hear the water bubbling by, and most importantly, this is the total isolation and peace that I’ve been craving.
A couple days later …
If you’re like me, right now you have the underlyingly tired but half-crazed face of a zombie someone has been inoculating with a caffeine IV. You’re simultaneously pounding out a 20-40 page paper on “anthropogenic effects on bear behavior” (currently on 17 woot woot), learning the five steps to statistical hypothesis testing, and writing this article.
The brief interval between Thanksgiving and Christmas break is, for most of us, a free-for-all that varies between stints of undeserved calm and total crisis mode. This chaos not only controls our lives, it ensnares us so tightly that we feel downright guilty taking a half hour to, say, go for a quick jog, or – wait, this is good – are you ready? – leave campus (I know, I know, crazy talk) and get outside. The good news is, one day, if you’re not there yet, you will reach a point where you break free from this snare. Personally, I’m at a place where people’s wild stares and incredulous tones when I mention how I left campus all day to hike no longer have the same effect.
The crazy news is that taking these little bits of time to get outside, in whatever flavor you prefer, is actually good for us.
Research shows that no matter who you are or where you are from, humans feel a basic appreciation engaging with nature. And you can do this on one of three levels: viewing nature (watching the snowfall from your library carrel), being “nearby” to nature (a peaceful morning walk to the library), or actively participating in the great outdoors (who am I kidding, ditch the library and go for a run or something). Other studies confirm this, all with the general conclusion that nature reduces stress.
And here’s a little evolutionary tidbit from your evolutionary-bio-major author: researchers hypothesize that this is a result of our ingrained primal instincts. That is to say, in the past, those who could operate well in the wild (find the food, get to the water, avoid the poisonous berries) had survival advantages (the official name for this is the “biophilia hypothesis”).
So why is it still a destressor? Research is still investigating this question, but some explanations include that it rejuvenates your stress-fatigued neurons or that it triggers “old” brain function, allowing the concentrated and exhausted portions of your brain to take a break.
Curious to get other students’ takes on getting outside, I turned to the University of Pennsylvania Outdoors Club (UPOC) to survey some members. Here’s what they had to say …
What’s your favorite escape from campus?
People’s responses ranged from a jog off of campus to chillin in a hammock to backpacking over breaks. And why? Because “it’s relaxing!” (see? Science is real!) and “When I’m in my hammock, I can forget the work stresses that have accumulated over the week. Away from the computer, I’m not causing my eyes late-night strain, and I’m not constantly taxing my mind.”
For one involved UPOCer, it’s the “mental and physical challenge” of rock climbing that she craves, as well as “sitting back and just enjoying the experience of being in nature.” Another of our club climbers and outdoorswomen agrees with her – “It’s totally focusing. When you’re climbing, there isn’t room for anything in your head but you and the wall – otherwise you’ll fall off.”
And how do you feel when you do said activity?
Peaceful. Spiritual. Happy. Rejuvenated. Clear. Tranquil. Magical. Stronger. Practically every response included some variation of “relaxed.”
Our knowledgeable, friendly, and overworked gear manager had a highly relatable response for how he feels when he hits the trails: “To me, backpacking and the other outdoor activities I do here at Penn function as a release. In school, I hold myself to standards that can be described as unrealistic at best, and neurotic at worst. Whenever I go outside, be it on a run, a hike in the Wiss, or a backpacking trip, these standards melt away, and I can just be myself.”
And as beautiful and peaceful as nature is, members also love how it allows them to engage with other like-minded tree huggers.
“Just as big a part as actually climbing is the climbing community. It really feels like I’ve found my home at Penn – my group of people that I can truly be myself around.”
“It’s a great way not only to experience the outdoors but to get to know new people. Many of the most meaningful friendships I’ve made since coming to Penn have been on backpacking trips…
…There’s something about getting lost in the woods, eating freeze-dried food, and walking 11 miles a day that really brings a group of people together. Maybe it’s just shared trauma.” (truth)
“The most memorable trip I’ve had was one to the Delaware Water Gap with UPOC. One of my favorite memories was swimming under a waterfall midway through a long hike, laughing with new friends.”
So I leave you to it… because it’s currently 2 a.m., I am not a page further in my essay, and I know tomorrow is going to be a doozy. But just remember, when you’re sitting in the library and your energy is waning, turn to the outdoors for some rejuvenation. You might just end up finding that restorative peace you needed.