Connecting with nature offers numerous benefits, ETSU professor says

Published 2:29 pm Monday, October 30, 2023

As the fall season progresses and temperatures drop, now is the perfect time to step outside and take in the beauty of the season change.
Dr. Bethany Novotny, associate professor in East Tennessee State University’s Department of Counseling and Human Services, said that it is crucial for students to explore the outdoors. She said that with the increase in technology being incorporated into our daily lives, we are spending less time outdoors. Additionally, technology is bringing added anxiety and stress into students’ lives.
The solution is to spend more intentional time outside, she said.
“I don’t think it’s a surprise to anybody to hear ‘When I go outside, I feel better.’ That’s kind of a common statement that people make, especially on days that are sunny, warm and enjoyable,” said Novotny. “Natural environments restore our attention and focus (and) give us more mental bandwidth, and that has a lot to do with the expansiveness of nature.”
For our physical health, Novotny says that nature allows us to become more physically active, reduces our stress hormone cortisol, and facilitates a boost in our immune systems.
“When people are outside, they’re using their body more, so that puts them in a state of physical exertion, which can also help them sleep better,” said Novotny. “Additionally, spending time in nature engages our parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of ‘rest and digest’, providing time for our bodies to recover from everyday stressors as well as regulate our bodily functions and emotional states.”
Throughout the past few years, the University Counseling Center began weekly Forest Walks throughout campus trails to promote physical activity and better mental health.
In the past, the walks consisted of a guided tour throughout the trails in which they came to a “sit-spot” and returned to the beginning of the trail. Novotny said that people began to lose interest, so she teamed up with counselor Rhonda Hubbard to reinvent the weekly Forest Walks.
“Every week we alternate who facilitates (the walks) and we’re doing more activities, engaging people’s senses more intentionally, so that it’s a different experience every time,” said Novotny.
These activities include mindfulness exercises, one of which she calls “360-degree senses.” She leads the group through a series of prompts which allow them to open their senses, one at a time, to get them “out of their heads and into their bodies.”
“In the United States, on average, we spend about 90% of our time indoors,” said Novotny. “As a college student, you’re spending not only a lot of time indoors attending class and, on your computer, doing homework, but any extra time you have is probably spent engaging in something on a smartphone or watching TV.”
When you consider the amount of technology that is incorporated into our lives, she said, it is clear that we need a break from it all. Even just a 15-minute break in nature is shown to restore attention and focus.
For college students, a simple 15-minute break could make a difference in the grade of a paper they could be writing at the time.
From a lovely greenspace to the beautifully renovated D.P. Culp Student Center, ETSU has worked to make the campus experience an exceptional one.
For more information, contact ETSU’s Counseling Center at counselingcenter@etsu.edu. If you are interested in partaking in the weekly Forest Walks, call (423) 439-3333.

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