Why you should journal while soaking up nature

“One of the best ways to connect with and rediscover ourselves is to reconnect with our surroundings.”
Redhead girl sitting on green spring grass writing down her thoughts in notebook.

Start simple with writing down what you see. DepositPhotos

If you’re looking for a physical and mental health boost, it’s time to head outside. Studies show that spending time outside, even if you’re not participating in any kind of physical activity, can offer just that. In fact, taking even a few minutes to sit by a stream, rest in the shade of a tree, or just sit by an open window to watch the birds can have immense therapeutic and physiological benefits. In fact, study after study shows that nature therapy can reduce stress, lessen feelings of anxiety, even boost physical well-being.

But what may be even better for your health is spending time outdoors mindfully, which, when combined with nature therapy, can enhance feelings of calm, interconnectedness with nature, even positive neurobiological responses. One way to incorporate mindfulness into time in nature without sitting cross-legged on the grass with your eyes closed, a posture often associated with meditation, is journaling. Here’s how and why to stuff a notebook in your pocket or backpack the next time you head outdoors to squeeze every drop of goodness that comes with spending time outside.

What counts as nature therapy

The term “nature therapy” might spark any number of visuals, from long walks on the beach to meditation sessions in the park to a simple stroll around your neighborhood. And while it’s often associated with hours spent in the forest quietly communing with nature a la Shinrin-yoku or forest bathing, nature therapy can be much more accessible than that, which is good news for city dwellers and others who might not have easy access to large swaths of green space.

In fact, according to Erica R. Timko Olson, registered nurse and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota who specializes in nature-based therapies that support wellbeing, there are many ways to interact with nature. That includes intentionally engaging in therapeutic nature-based experiences, sure, but also walking to work or enjoying a sunny park bench, even listening to nature sounds or viewing photos or videos of nature scenes.

In essence, nature therapy can involve everything from summiting a mountain to grabbing lunch on a patio to watching a butterfly from your apartment balcony; it can be done, and the benefits experienced, just about anywhere.

The benefits of journaling in nature

And yes, slowing down to take in all the sights and sounds of the outdoors, especially in this age of packed schedules and no downtime, is plenty important. Reo Jones, registered nurse, researcher and PhD candidate at OHSU, explains that while people these days are nearly constantly in fight or flight mode, writing and reflecting in a natural environment can change the physiology in the body and magnify the psychological, physical and spiritual well being felt in the presence of nature that tells us we’re safe and can relax. You don’t even have to commit a large chunk of your day to the practice, she says.

“How quickly and how drastically people can feel better. It blows my mind.”

In fact, Jones suggests that taking as little as five minutes on a regular basis can have profound benefits for mental, but also physical, health. “How quickly and how drastically people can feel better. It blows my mind,” she says. “We see that on the cellular level.”

From a reduction in cortisol levels and a boost in immune function to positive changes in anxiety and mood, any amount of mindfulness outdoors is beneficial. That includes when you’re indoors but nature adjacent, like when greenery is placed in a classroom or there’s a view of nature from your office or hospital window. So grab a notebook and get to it.

Grab a journal to practice mindfulness

However, for many, the act of journaling can seem intimidating. But it doesn’t have to. In fact, according to Jones, it will look different for everyone. It can be as simple as writing down what you see, feel, or smell using whatever senses are available to you, which encourages you to pay attention and tune into the world around you. Start by writing down details you might typically ignore in daily life, like the sound of leaves chattering in the breeze, the way light changes on the grass, or how spring flowers smell.

“The best entry into this is to go outside and observe. And do that until you feel comfortable,” instructs Sydney Williams, author of Hiking Your Feelings and founder of the non-profit retreat-based Hiking My Feelings, both of which exist to help people discover the healing power of nature. Then, when you’re comfortable with observation, get introspective and write down how the scenes around you make you feel.

When you’re ready to go deeper, observe what’s happening internally in addition to externally. Journaling, especially when done outdoors, can be a way to process and work through difficult feelings and traumatic experiences explains Williams, who discovered firsthand when spending time outdoors with pen and paper in hand that wilderness offers the space to observe and reflect without judgment. It can also be somewhere to redirect energy—via hiking or exploring—that can feel bottled up indoors. “It’s the expansiveness that I feel outdoors that make the processing more accessible and approachable,” she says. It can ease fight or flight mode when you feel triggered, she adds.

If you’re still having trouble putting thoughts into words, return to simple observation, but pay attention to what the scenes around you inspire. If you see a cactus, Williams says, consider its spines and let them prompt you to think about what is currently irritating you. Put on paper what you’re thinking and feeling, why you might be thinking and feeling that way, and how those thoughts and feelings are affecting you physically and mentally. 

“There’s something about the reflective process and taking the time to be with it and process it and think about it,” Jones says. No judgment, just introspection and inspiration.

“One of the best ways to connect with and rediscover ourselves is to reconnect with our surroundings,” says Williams. So grab a notebook or open the Notes app on your phone, find a stream, tree, or rooftop to sit by, under, or on, and take a few minutes to observe and reflect. Your mind and body will thank you for it.