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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."

Moricz was banned from speaking up about LGBTQ topics. He found a brilliant workaround.

Senior class president Zander Moricz was given a fair warning: If he used his graduation speech to criticize the “Don’t Say Gay” law, then his microphone would be shut off immediately.

Moricz had been receiving a lot of attention for his LGBTQ activism prior to the ceremony. Moricz, an openly gay student at Pine View School for the Gifted in Florida, also organized student walkouts in protest and is the youngest public plaintiff in the state suing over the law formally known as the Parental Rights in Education law, which prohibits the discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3.

Though well beyond third grade, Moricz nevertheless was also banned from speaking up about the law, gender or sexuality. The 18-year-old tweeted, “I am the first openly-gay Class President in my school’s history–this censorship seems to show that they want me to be the last.”

However, during his speech, Moricz still delivered a powerful message about identity. Even if he did have to use a clever metaphor to do it.

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Matthew McConaughey in 2019.

Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey made a heartfelt plea for Americans to “do better” on Tuesday after a gunman murdered 19 children and 2 adults at Robb Elementary School in his hometown of Uvalde, Texas.

Uvalde is a small town of about 16,000 residents approximately 85 miles west of San Antonio. The actor grew up in Uvalde until he was 11 years old when his family moved to Longview, 430 miles away.

The suspected murderer, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, was killed by law enforcement at the scene of the crime. Before the rampage, Ramos allegedly shot his grandmother after a disagreement.

“As you all are aware there was another mass shooting today, this time in my home town of Uvalde, Texas,” McConaughey wrote in a statement shared on Twitter. “Once again, we have tragically proven that we are failing to be responsible for the rights our freedoms grant us.”

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Meet Eva, the hero dog who risked her life saving her owner from a mountain lion

Wilson had been walking down a path with Eva when a mountain lion suddenly appeared.

Photo by Didssph on Unsplash

A sweet face and fierce loyalty: Belgian Malinois defends owner.

The Belgian Malinois is a special breed of dog. It's highly intelligent, extremely athletic and needs a ton of interaction. While these attributes make the Belgian Malinois the perfect dog for police and military work, they can be a bit of a handful as a typical pet.

As Belgian Malinois owner Erin Wilson jokingly told NPR, they’re basically "a German shepherd on steroids or crack or cocaine.”

It was her Malinois Eva’s natural drive, however, that ended up saving Wilson’s life.

According to a news release from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Wilson had been walking down a path with Eva slightly ahead of her when a mountain lion suddenly appeared and swiped Wilson across the left shoulder. She quickly yelled Eva’s name and the dog’s instincts kicked in immediately. Eva rushed in to defend her owner.

It wasn’t long, though, before the mountain lion won the upper hand, much to Wilson’s horror.

She told TODAY, “They fought for a couple seconds, and then I heard her start crying. That’s when the cat latched on to her skull.”

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