Expert Blogs | Mental Health
How Stepping Outside Could Change Your Day
Man outside smiling

When my three young kids are at each other’s throats, sending them outside to play is one of the most reliable ways to make the fighting stop. There’s something about being outdoors that makes kids more agreeable—not always, but often.

Going outside can have similar benefits for adults. I’ve found that even a quick trip to take out the trash can improve my state of heart and mind, as I breathe in the fresh air and look up at the sky. Whether I’m feeling stressed, gloomy, or restless, my mood generally improves the minute I set foot out the door.

What is it about being in the great outdoors that can have such a powerful effect on our well-being?

Stress Reduction

Research has shown that being outside activates the calming part of the nervous system, and quiets the fight-flight-or-freeze stress response. You can often feel this effect with the first breath you take outside: Your shoulders relax, your mind clears, and things just seem lighter. We can take our stress with us when we’re outside, of course, but it’s easier to let it go. 

Action Step: When you’re stuck with difficult emotions, spend a few minutes outside. Focus on your senses or on an activity, rather than trying to change your mood, and see what happens.

Broadened Perspective

Staying indoors can put us in a small frame of mind. Like goldfish who grow to match the size of their container, our imaginations can be limited by the size of a room and height of the ceiling. It can be especially easy to focus narrowly on our imagined problems, like seeing them through a telescope, as we ignore everything else.

Stepping outside expands our point of view. We’re reminded that the problems we mistook for all of reality are but a speck on a speck in the vastness of the universe. We regain a rightful sense of scope and perspective.

Action Step:Step outside and look up at the sky. Notice what’s happening with this particular sky at this particular time—the color, the light, the clouds or stars. Be reminded that there’s a whole universe that you’re a part of, that goes on pretty much the same with or without you. 

Technology Break

When we’re inside, we’re almost always in close proximity to a computer, phone, or tablet. The first hint of boredom will compel us to reach for our phones, which stops the boredom but does little for our long-term well-being. While digital devices promise to deliver the world at our fingertips, in reality they shrink our universe to the size of a two-dimensional screen.  

Going outside can offer a break from screens (provided you leave them behind, of course). Most of us feel a jolt of uneasiness at the thought of venturing anywhere without our phone, and if we move through that initial reaction, we usually find a great sense of relief on the other side.

Action Step: Go for a walk without your phone. See what you notice that you usually miss when you’re looking at a screen.  

Connection to Others

Going outside often opens the possibility of having positive social interactions, like with your neighbors, which can provide a mood boost. There’s also a different quality of connection with the people you live with when you’re outdoors—especially when you’re walking side by side. The simple act of moving through the world shoulder to shoulder embodies a sense of togetherness. Walking together also tends to change the quality of the conversation, versus sitting together inside.

Action Step: Make a date to walk with a friend, or go on a walk with someone you live with.

Renewed Spirit

Being surrounded by human-made things eventually is exhausting, and the deepest part of you—your spirit—longs for the outdoors. We’re often not aware of this longing until we step outside, like not realizing we’re famished until we start to eat.

Your spirit resonates with the outdoors, in a way that’s easier to sense than to describe. There is something that feels true and right about being outside, as though the core of your being recognizes itself in the natural world.

Action Step: Stand outside with your hands at your sides. Feel your feet on the ground. Look around and take in what you see. Feel the air as it fills your lungs. Notice what it’s like to be a living being in this world.

If you spend most of your time indoors, find a way each day to be outside. It doesn’t have to be for hours on end—just spend a few minutes between activities, or when you need to clear your head. Invite others to join you, if possible. See what happens as you make outdoor time a daily habit.  

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Clinical psychologist

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based interventions. His books include The CBT Deck and A Mindful Year (co-written with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh); he hosts the weekly Think Act Be podcast, featuring conversations on living more fully.

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