If you're super outdoorsy, this is the awesome way it's changing your brain.

J. Phoenix Smith lost her job during the Great Recession.

Smith is from Oakland, California, and she has worked in community health for her entire career. But in 2010, with the economy stumbling along, Smith suddenly found herself without a job.

"I was having a rough time," says Smith, in a voice that immediately makes you feel like she's an old friend. Like many people in California at the time, losing her job gave Smith a lot of free time — and a lot of anxiety. So, as her own form of therapy, Smith turned to the outdoors.


"Everyday I'd go for a hike," Smith says.

Image courtesy of J. Phoenix Smith.

Oakland might be just a hop, skip, and a jump from San Francisco and Silicon Valley, but it's surrounded by a wealth of wild places, which Smith started discovering once she was unemployed.

"I was doing more hikes by myself. I didn't grow up going camping with my family or anything, but I started doing that," she says. She describes visiting groves of redwoods at Joaquin Miller Park, hiking up the remains of an ancient volcano at Sibley, and volunteering at a local farm.

Over time, she says the hiking actually made her feel better, even during one of the hardest transitions of her life.

This feeling Smith experienced actually has a name: ecotherapy.

And here we see the extremely rare Prozac tree. Image from iStock.

It might sound like a weird, new-age buzzword, but it's actually a pretty interesting. Ecotherapy is, in basic terms, using nature or natural spaces as a form of or tool for psychotherapy.

Today, in addition to continuing her public health work, Smith has a graduate certificate in ecotherapy. She has a practice focused on sharing the incredible benefits of being outside, and she helps doctors, nurses, and nonprofits learn how to add ecotherapy's ideas to their toolbox.

This isn't just feel-good stuff, either. It turns out there are serious studies about the power of the outdoors.

Shortly after this, Dave learned to tame condors. He lives with them now. Image from iStock.

Anyone who's been stuck in a rut of destructive, intrusive, or worrying thoughts knows how awful that feeling can be. Smith knows this firsthand, too.

"I'm a ruminator, which means I overthink things all the time," she says.

The problem is that our brain's response to a stressor can be to try to turn it around over and over again until we come up with a solution. But sometimes a quick fix just isn't possible, and our brains can end up trapped in a cycle of self-reproach, stress, and anxiety.

According to one study, though, nature could help us break this self-inflicted cycle. Scientists at Stanford got two groups to go for walks, one in an urban setting and one in nature. Compared to a walk in an urban setting, people who took to nature didn't ruminate as much. Scientists even saw differences in brain activity between the two groups.

Being outside could also make us more creative.

Another study looked at creativity and problem-solving, with researchers talking to people before and after a hiking trip. They found that the hikers were about 50% better able to come up with solutions after four days out in the wild, maybe because the nature hike helped people reset their ability to pay attention.

And if nothing else, a hike or walk is really, really good exercise. We know that exercise, beyond being good for the body, can help our brains, too, by reducing stress and anxiety.

So you know those wild-looking, long-distance hikers who seem zen all the time? Maybe they're onto something.

Hey, so, what's the Wi-Fi password? Image from iStock.

Smith says that if you're a newbie, one of the best things you can do is to unplug (like, really unplug and leave the music and headphones at home) and go out into nature with a journal or sketchbook. Maybe find one place you love and come back to it several times over the weeks. Notice what changes in your brain and your life.

As for Smith, she says she loves being outdoors because it makes her feel free. "I'm able to connect with different parts of myself, the creative person, the physically strong person, the quiet person and the spiritual person," Smith says.

"When I connect with nature, I also am able to tap into a sense of wonder and a deep sense of gratitude for this amazing place called Earth."

Family
True
REI

We all know that social media can be a cesspool of trolly negativity, but sometimes a story comes along that totally restores your faith in the whole thing. Enter the KFC proposal that started off being mocked and ended up with a swarm of support from individuals and companies who united to give the couple an experience to remember.

Facebook user Tae Spears shared the story with screenshots from Twitter, and the response has been overwhelming.

Keep Reading Show less
popular
via Twitter / ESPN

Madison Square Garden in New York City is known for having hosted some legendary performances. George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh in '71, Billy Joel's 12 sellouts in '06, and Carmelo Anthony's 62 points in a 2014 victory against the Charlotte Bobcats, just to name a few.

But it's hard to imagine one person holding the legendary arena in the palm of their hand quite like Pete DuPré, better known as "Harmonica Pete," did on Veterans Day.

Keep Reading Show less
popular

Many of us are too young to remember the hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73 of 1986, much less any details about it. But thanks to a viral Facebook post from Misfit History, some attention is being shed on an incredible heroine who saved many American lives in the standoff.

The post reads:

Keep Reading Show less
popular
via Thomas Benjamin Wild Esq. / YouTube

Whenever life becomes too tedious or stressful, it seems that the human psyche has a release valve that turns on and we just go, "F it."

I give up. I no longer care. I got nothing left.

It's a wonderful moment when we go from being at our wits end to being on the other side of the madness. Because, after all, as Mark Manson, author of "The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck" says:

You and everyone you know are going to be dead soon. And in the short amount of time between here and there, you have a limited amount of fucks to give. Very few, in fact.
Keep Reading Show less
popular