WebMD BlogsMental Health

How Stepping Outside Could Change Your Day

Man outside smiling
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistFebruary 25, 2020

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.  

WebMD Blog
© 2020 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.
Blog Topics:
About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and host of the weekly Think Act Be podcast. He is author of The CBT Deck, Retrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan provides resources for managing stress, anxiety, and other conditions on the Think Act Be website.

More from the Mental Health Blog

View all posts on Mental Health

Latest Blog Posts on WebMD

  • photo of woman comforting friend hand on shoulder

    Asking for Help as an Act of Self-Care

    For so much of my life, a gnawing fear of failure prevented me from asking for help when I needed it most. Anxiety was a primary motivator in many aspects ...

  • photo of note on kitchen counter
    Multiple Sclerosis

    Dealing With Brain Fog

    What was I saying? What am I looking for? What’s your name? What’s that called? Does this sound familiar? I bet you’ve been in this position before. It’s called ...

View all blog posts

Important: The opinions expressed in WebMD Blogs are solely those of the User, who may or may not have medical or scientific training. These opinions do not represent the opinions of WebMD. Blogs are not reviewed by a WebMD physician or any member of the WebMD editorial staff for accuracy, balance, objectivity, or any other reason except for compliance with our Terms and Conditions. Some of these opinions may contain information about treatments or uses of drug products that have not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. WebMD does not endorse any specific product, service or treatment.

Do not consider WebMD Blogs as medical advice. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider because of something you have read on WebMD. You should always speak with your doctor before you start, stop, or change any prescribed part of your care plan or treatment. WebMD understands that reading individual, real-life experiences can be a helpful resource, but it is never a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from a qualified health care provider. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or dial 911 immediately.

Read More