Experiencing Burnout? A Dose of Nature Can Help
I feel the sun on my face. A soft breeze rustles the sagebrush and the blooming arrowroot dances beside me. Birds chirp and flit in and out of the sprouting willow. I close my eyes and feel the tension leave my shoulders. I lean back against the creekside boulder, toes extending towards the water slowly winding its way through the canyon that cuts through Succor Creek State Park. Laying there with an unconscious smile and a quieted mind, I feel something I haven’t felt in a while: hope.
The last two weeks of school before spring break, I went to bed each night unsuccessfully trying to massage the tension out of my jaw. The stress from teaching was following me home like a thunderhead and worries about my students were persistent gray skies. Despite my passion for education, I thought often about quitting. Gloom was pervasive, and I was desperately dreaming of spring break’s sun-drenched respite.
Turns out I was experiencing burnout.
The World Health Organization defines burnout as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” My fatigue, sadness, excessive stress, and let’s face it – my irritability – were all symptoms. It is hard to erase the ingrained protestant work ethic from our work lives, and it’s equally challenging to ignore the attention economy driving society. This pressure to be productive can have deadly consequences. WHO recently reported that long working hours are leading to increased deaths from heart disease and strokes. English doesn’t have a word for it, but in Japanese karoshi means death by overwork.
Like many of us, now several years into the pandemic, the separation of work and home became more permeable. I was craving both a digital detox and some rest. When spring break finally arrived, I checked out How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell from the library, and my partner, Casey and I escaped to the desert where we took turns reading chapters aloud. Odell advocates detaching our worth from our productivity and instead embracing “the mere experience of life as the highest goal.” She writes about how nature helps her connect with the life she wants to be living. Nature as medicine is not new, she says, but it is increasingly necessary.
In a hyper-digital world, our brains constantly handle rivaling stimuli causing directed attention fatigue (DAF). This leads to irritability, impatience, and sometimes burnout. According to Madison Kahn, author of “Free Medicine,” time in nature can decrease or even eliminate DAF. She writes even just “gazing at clouds and trees restores both mood and cognitive function.” I felt that as I sat by Succor Creek. Not only did my spirit feel lifted and my chest lighter, but I found my mind meandering in surprisingly productive ways.
The science shows that time in nature makes us more productive, and happier. Yet, Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix, writes, “We don’t experience natural environments enough to realize how restored they make us feel, nor are we aware that studies also show they make us healthier, more creative, more empathetic and more apt to engage with the world and with each other. Nature, it turns out, is good for civilization.” The average person, though, spends less than 5% of their time outside. Walks in nature relative to urban walks yield higher decreases in cortisol production, blood pressure and heart rate. Sleeping outside jumpstarts circadian rhythms increasing sleep and decreasing stress. Time outside activates the vagus nerve which quiets the fight or flight response, lowers heart rates, and relaxes the body. Even just five minutes brings these benefits. The science is abundant, and it is clear: getting outside is well worth the effort.
Casey and I woke by Succor Creek the next morning to a strange sound. We rolled over in our sleeping bags, squinted into the rising sun and scanned the horizon in an attempt to locate the source. I have only heard legend of strutting sage grouse, but as soon as we saw the group of birds, I knew. I gasped with wonder and awe. We laid there for a good, long while, listening, grinning and feeling peaceful. Instead of reaching for our phones to take pictures, we stayed in the moment; we felt the sun on our faces, the wind in our hair. We smelled the sage and ogled the arrowroot.
We had nowhere to be, and nature sure was putting on a show. We experienced the moment. We were living. Nothing was more important than the renewed sense of hope brought by a few days spent gazing at winding rivers and passing clouds.
I can’t wait to do it again.