How Nature Became the Unexpected Foundation for My Mental Health Journey

Benjamin Heim
Benjamin Heim

Living in a small town in rural Massachusetts, I often joked that the only two things to do for fun were going to the local Target or finding a place to hike. Ironically, up until the pandemic, I never really enjoyed hiking (consequently, I spent a lot of time at Target). I was fortunate to have beautiful hiking trails less than fifty paces from my back door, but I never used them – I just wasn’t interested. However, as the world closed in on itself and I was left to figure out how to spend my time at home while dealing with the reality of the pandemic, I decided to give nature a chance.

Taking walks by the steady brook and through the trunks of the trees, I found a way to tune out the world. As someone prone to being stuck in their head, with thoughts spiraling out of control, the forest behind my house was the first place I found where it felt like time had slowed down. It’s where my anxiety about school, my future career, and current events flew away, leaving me to value the present moment as it is. And even as the world has returned to normal, and then back to not normal, and then finally to mostly normal, I haven’t given up my habit of getting outside.

I attribute a lot of my personal growth to my walks. Armed with a notebook and pen, I trekked down my wood-lined road engulfed by an ecosystem that reminded me how large and beautiful our world is, and consequently, how minor my problems felt. It was on these walks that I made the most substantial steps towards overcoming my social anxiety by striking up conversations with familiar fellow hikers whom I crossed paths with, documented in my 3×5 inch Moleskine notebook that I carry wherever I go. It was where I first began to believe that I was creative and began to write poetry, an outlet that I still use to find joy in my everyday life. It is in these moments that I still often find inspiration for a new idea, experience the ability to feel peace in the present moment, and find simple joy from just being outdoors. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve learned that for me, nature has the power to make my purpose feel big and my anxieties feel small. It is where I have found my identity in being a part of something larger than myself, and I attribute my experience with nature as the motivator for my exploration of minimalism: it taught me that less is more. While it did take a while to convince my mom that I could get rid of 50% of my wardrobe, it didn’t take me long to realize that I had significantly more than I needed. And as my walks had helped me weed out the unnecessary and unhelpful thoughts from my mind, I worked on pruning the unneeded from my physical and digital life. I reduced my consumption and found joy in knowing that I was helping the Earth that was providing me some much-needed refuge.

 Now, I make time for nature every day. Whether it be a beaver-watching excursion with my friends (I adore beavers) or going for a short walk, I value the time in which I can get out of my head and become more intentional and mindful with how I live my life.

To learn more about nature-oriented actions that can benefit your mental health, check out the Active Minds “Mental Health +” homepage.