How to Calm the Mind: Becoming Awe Struck in Nature

It seemed as though all the time and effort I had put into healing over the past few years had just gone to waste. Feelings of depression, anxiety and low self-worth began to resurface. But I immediately knew the solution, nature. Just a few moments of awe was all I needed to help calm the mind. I loaded up my backpack with water and snacks, making sure to also add the new essentials of 2020, a face mask and hand sanitizer. I became even more frustrated as I wandered around trying to remember where I last set my face mask down. Too many things were clouding my mind. Thoughts of job insecurity in the current economic climate, magnified by my most recent relationship setback, left me feeling lonely and worried.

My Mind Begins to Calm

I drove the one hour drive to reach my destination. Feelings of agitation grew as I drove through growing urban areas surrounded by asphalt and concrete. I wondered what had happened to the small city I grew up in. When did this massive sprawling concrete jungle appear? And why is it so hard for businesses to at least attempt to put a few plants out front? I cursed the new ‘Mediterranean’ look that left me longing for the old buildings built out of brown mud and stucco. I cursed at a few driver’s under my breath as well, as I shifted to the fast lane.

As I started to drive up the mountain, I began to feel a small release of tension. Finally, something to look at other than concrete. Still aggravated, I noticed the brown pine trees and cursed the monsoons for not providing more rain this year. ‘2020 sucks on so many levels,’ I thought. I started to feel a little more relaxed the further I drove up the winding road. As I reached the parking lot and stepped out of the car, I suddenly felt better. A cool breeze blew across my face as I gathered my back pack full of essentials and headed up the trail.

Finding That Moment of Awe

It was only a few minutes before I was surrounded by pine trees and I had a sense that maybe things might turn out to be okay. Feelings of frustration surfaced upon seeing the large amounts of people who had the same idea on this beautiful day. I put my face mask on as I allowed a family to pass by me on the narrow trail. The knowledge that soon I would reach a place that was so awe inspiring, I would not be able to feel any agitation at all, kept me moving.

I gasped a little for air as my body tried to adjust to the high altitude. It reminded me with every step just how long it had been since I visited the mountain top. My destination was not far though. As I reached the edge of the mountain, I took in a deep breath. I immediately became awe struck by the familiar scene. All of the anxiety left my body and my mind began to calm. I sat on a rock and took in the expansive view and knew that somehow, even in 2020, everything would be all right. I took a moment to answer the text message that just hours earlier had made me feel like I must be unlovable. My mind let go of all past relationship pain and I just sat there quietly with the vast landscape. ‘Just let go’ the breeze told me. And so I did.

How That Moment of Awe Can Calm the Mind

Nature is a powerful remedy. Nature that includes something awe inspiring might just be better than any other prescription around. Awe inspires feelings of humility and allows us to have a more outward perspective. Perhaps we have always known this, but science now backs the idea that a deeply powerful, awe-inspiring experience can change someone’s perspective for a long time. (Williams) Maybe even permanently. Studies show that spending time in awe inspiring natural settings can even make us more generous and reinforce social connections. This in turn lowers inflammation and stress. In fact, short exposure to nature can make us less aggressive, more creative, and healthier overall.

How does it work? A sense of awe deactivates the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that allows us to plan and set goals. This part of the brain can also get stuck in worry mode, or what I often refer to as the ‘runaway train.’ It’s also linked to feelings of sadness, withdrawal and that sense of irritability that we are all struggling with right now. By deactivating this part of the brain, we are also shutting down the amygdala, which allows us to step out of fight or flight mode and relax the mind. (Van der Kolk) Rewiring the brain in this way is imperative for those healing from trauma, but it is also necessary for all of us to maintain a healthy mind. Spending time in nature can actually help calm our fears and bring us together, something that is much needed in the world right now.

Nature to the Rescue

I looked down at my phone again. I felt surprised to see that I had actually been sitting on the mountain top for nearly an hour. My heart rate had slowed. My mood had lifted. And that ‘run-away train,’ suggesting that nothing was ever going to be okay again, had shifted to a knowing that even during these times, I am surrounded by beauty. I took in one last view of the expanding view and smiled. ‘Nature to the rescue,’ I thought. And I headed down the mountain.

An awe inspiring view from the mountain to help clam the mind.
Sandia Crest
Photo by Christine John

Sources and Suggested Readings:

The Nature Fix by Florence Williams

The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.