Within minutes after this snapshot of Hillary Clinton and a stranger hiking in the woods was circulated on social media, it became a meme.
People flocked to Twitter and Facebook to share the photo, which featured a young mum and her infant posing with Clinton and her dog on a trail in the woods of Chappaqua, New York. The image was taken just two days after Clinton lost the 2017 presidential election.
After Clinton was spotted in the forest again a few weeks later, people joked that perhaps the former candidate had permanently relocated. Saturday Night Live even came out with a skit called “The Hunt for Hil,” parodying early news coverage of “Big Foot.”
But in her new book, “What Happened,” Clinton says these nature walks — which were often supplemented by yoga and a special form of meditative breathing — weren’t a form of escapism. Instead, they were a source of healing and comfort in the days after the election.
As it turns out, long walks in nature can be strong medicine — unsurprisingly, the whisper of trees and chirping birds appear to quiet our nerves. Plenty of scientific evidence supports the practice of spending time in to your local park or wilderness area when experiencing grief or loss.
A study comparing two groups of students who were assigned to either spend two nights in a forest or a city found that those who hunkered down in the wilderness had lower levels of cortisol — a hormone often used as a marker for stress — than those in the city.
These benefits may be especially strong for people dealing with depression, anxiety, or grief. A large review of 10 studies involving more than 1,200 people found that a walk in the forest was linked with reduced levels of anxiety and a lift in mood. Those benefits were the greatest in people who also said they were anxious or depressed.
“Every green environment improved both self-esteem and mood,” the researchers wrote in their paper, a benefit that led them to conclude that “the environment provides an important health service.”
Yet another study — this one involving people with major depressive disorder (MDD) — also showed that a 50-minute outdoor walk was tied to improvements in mood and short-term memory. These effects held constant even when participants were told to think about a painful negative experience before their walks.
“These findings suggest that interacting with nature, even in the context of thinking about a painful memory, is beneficial for people suffering from MDD,” the authors wrote.
The positive effects of nature are so strong that even looking at it appears to have beneficial effects. In one study, office workers who could see a forest from their window tended to report lower levels of stress and higher levels of job satisfaction.
It’s still unclear why nature appears to have such a healing effect on our brains and bodies, but some studies suggest it’s powerful enough to influence our behaviour in addition to our mood.
For one study, researchers at the University of California Berkeley had two groups of volunteers either stare at something natural or unnatural for a minute and then see if this had any measurable impact on their generosity. The first group stared at a grove of tall trees; the second group stared at a building. Then the researchers arranged for the volunteers to come across someone who appeared to stumble and accidentally drop a handful of pens. Interestingly, the volunteers who had spent their minute contemplating nature picked up more pens than the ones who looked at the building — suggesting that a stint in the woods could have some effect on how generous we are.
In an interview with National Public Radio after the election, Clinton said her forest walks gave her the time and space to clear her head and lift her spirits.
“I had a lot to think about,” she said. “And I think well when I’m walking. I sort of clear my mind.”
It appears she’s not the only one.
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