As I reached that point in the road where the valley below sprawls out in front of my
windshield and I can begin to see the red rock landscape that borders Capitol Reef National Park, I see my home, my backyard and I always feel my shoulders begin to relax. I’d been on the road again, airports, presentations, dinner events. In fact, I’d been operating in overdrive for months, juggling work, kids, the daily grind that comes with the responsibility of owning a business. The weeks seemed to pass in fast-forward, a warped medley of emails, presentations, deadlines, and bedtime stories. I craved a break, and the desert was just outside my backdoor, and although the break I craved had arrived, I had no idea the extent of the break that COVID19 had in store.
A few days earlier, I was at a school connection event in Las Angeles California. I joined a few friends and colleagues and we walked to dinner, that’s when COVID19 pandemic really hit. I remember it felt apocalyptic. We’ve all seen the movie, and this is how it starts, right? Flights canceled, store shelves cleared, celebrities inflicted, just a regular guy stuck in LA but against all odds must make it back to his family. Luckily the flights were not canceled and with two days left in LA and acknowledging that I didn’t have much control over the situation we decided to push forward with our scheduled #RXoffthecouch / #cityscpaeadventures events. After an early morning surf session, I connected with Lily Wilkinson to lead a group of California mental health and addiction professionals on a nature connection hike. The goal of these events are simple; to connect professionals from around the country (and globe) to the healing power of nature. During the events we often point to the growing body of research supporting nature connection and the contrasting growing body of research that exposes the negative and detrimental effects of screen time and self-isolation.
So, there we were on this COVID19 apocalyptic LA day, as people around the country emptied the stores of toilet paper, we went for a hike. By the time we met for the hike, we all knew that this was the last time for a while we would see each other at a professional event. Although some of us were just meeting, the tone of the hike felt deeper, heavier, more significant. Like the times before, we created space for emotional connection, we bonded, we acknowledged the fear of what lied ahead, and we celebrated the connections and wondered in ah at the views. It began to rain, and we let it soak us, it was calming, healing and needed.
During the hike we reached an overlook, and I knew as I stood overlooking the Pacific Ocean just beyond Santa Monica, I knew that with the pending pandemic, the healing power of nature was going to be needed now more than ever, just like the rain storm is needed to breath life into the trees, flowers and animals along the trail we hiked.
Fast forward, after many months at home and with a new vocabulary of phrases like droplet transmission, asymptomatic, incubation period, community spread, social distancing and contact tracing, we have adapted, our work goes on. The COVID-19 outbreak forced us all to physically disconnected from each other, however one unfortunate reality is that we have only increased our dependence to devices. We bounce from scrolling news headlines, social media, and email inboxes to attending Zoom meetings and back to the news headlines and the latest doom and gloom. Check out this report that confirm a spike in screen-time usage during the health crisis, with most adults spending on average an astonishing 10 hours per day on screens! And the Kids, how have they been impacted, getting more screen time than ever: They now go to school via a computer, attending Zoom birthday parties, facetime with grandparents and play who-knows-how-many-hours of online games.
So, what do we do? Because it is true, now more than ever, figuring out how to disconnect from our devices and connect with nature is essential to our collective well-being. Putting away the distractions of our phones and taking a walk under the sun may in fact be necessary for all of humanity. To creatively find ways to bring nature closer to our daily lives and the healing that comes with it, we may have to first silence the noise, the tweets, the buzzing, the notifications.
Some time ago I had the honor of joining Dr. David Strayer from the university of Utah for an ABC news segment where we reported on How Nature Can Restore Your Mental Health. During this piece Dr. Strayer makes the point that digital overload challenges the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that handles decision making, problem solving, planning, he further illustrates his point by saying “You’re going along, your phone rings, something pops up on your screen you’re bouncing back and forth. That produces long-term build up and depletes the resources that are important for thinking creatively.” This conversation was some years ago, however Dr. Strayer and I agree that in our current COVID19 reality, the case against screen time has only grown stronger and more concerning, for example we now know for a fact that screen time causes people to feel mentally drained and produce higher levels of stress and anxiety.
The last few years as we traveled for our #RXoffthecouch and #cityscapeadventures we educated on the growing concerns associated with screen time and often (especially for youth) the isolation that often goes with it. Now, here we are, in a truly nightmarish scenario, where we have been sentenced, forced to isolate and screen times are at all time highs. This is without question a global mental health and addiction crisis, some of the early effects are already being seen, suicide rates up, addiction and relapse rates up, divorces and domestic abuse up.
Here is the good news, we have discovered the antidote. NATURE! Being away from your devices and out in nature, even for a short time, provides a cure, a remedy that gets us back to thinking freely. In nature, our minds wander, like an active meditation, and quickly our decision-making, problem-solving frontal cortex can be replenished. So, it should come as no surprise that the longer you spend outside, the more you benefit, but even a 30-minute hike is beneficial.
Along with all the research we at conducting at Legacy and within the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare industry, there is rarely a day where a study doesn’t come to my attention, in one recent study from Stanford University, tells us that a 90-minute walk in a natural area was shown to lower the risk of depression, not surprising, right?
But what can you do? Or more specifically where can you go to truly unplug? Join us for our #RXoffthecouch summer challenge and help us find and share ideas for connecting with nature, and please for the collective mental health or our society GO OUTSIDE and invite your friends and family to go with you, walk, sit, observe, appreciate nature and enjoy the mental health benefits first hand.
Remember, for every submissions we receive we are also making a donation to Outdoor Afro, an organization that empowers black outdoor leadership.