"I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees" - Henry David Thoreau
How many times have you heard that nurses are bad at self-care? We don't go to the bathroom enough, we don't take lunch breaks, we don't exercise, we smoke cigarettes, we don't sleep enough, we eat our young...the list is seemingly endless. I'm going to add another one: we don't get enough alone time. In between 13-hour shifts and family/bank/school/grocery store, when do we have time? When was the last time you were actually alone? I'm going to guess: you were in your car driving to work, or running an errand. Am I right? When was the last time you were in nature? You know, with the tall green things and that bright, shiny orb in the sky? When was the last time you were alone in nature? As nurses, we are at risk for compassion fatigue, burnout, exposure to infectious diseases, and violence in the workplace. We deserve a break...we need a break. Keep reading to learn some of the mental and physical benefits of being alone in nature, and why solitude should be on our self-care list.
ADVENTURE IS OUT THERE
I've done plenty of adventurous things, like traveling to Haiti for a medical mission trip, a mountain bike adventure race that lasted 16 hours, jumping out of an airplane, having children. I moved across the country to take up kayaking, and I bought my first house on my own. I went back to school to be a nurse when I was 36, quitting a good full-time job with benefits. I'm not afraid of much. I like to test myself, but lately, the most adventurous thing I've done is binge watch Stranger Things. Something about turning fifty, and being a (mostly) stay at home mom to four kids has slowed me down lately. I've been feeling antsy, less alive. I needed some adventure.
My mom did four nights on the Appalachian Trail when she was 50, so perhaps I got the idea, and the courage from her, but I could never seem to get a plan in place for my own adventure. Finally, my success with daily journaling inspired me to set myself a deadline. When I had completed 60 days, I would head out into the woods with my journal, read through the pages, take notes of anything useful or important, and then burn the rest. I planned a ceremony of sorts. I planned to release the inner demons that were trapped on my journal pages. I was hoping for some transformation, and I was looking forward to the hike - I love being in the woods. I was less excited about the sleeping alone part, but there's that pesky need to test myself...it's like an itch I just have to scratch once in a while.
With a 20 mile round trip mapped out, I got underway. The day was gorgeous. I only saw one or two people, but no one tried to chat (whew!). I had a perfect moment where I laid on my back in the middle of the trail and just looked up at the sunlight streaming through the leaves of the Beech tree canopy. It was glorious. I was alone. I didn't get scared until I had settled into my hammock around 10 pm. That was when I started worrying about bears and the meth heads who've set up camp in our forest. I decided there was nothing I could do about it, said a prayer, and fell asleep... for nine hours! In retrospect, I would do it all again with a few changes. I think burning my journal was a good idea in theory, but not the transformation I was hoping for, and I will definitely not take another burrito, which did transform into a soggy mess by dinnertime.
While I was hiking I had some thoughts about this article. I am Safety Nurse after all, so I feel compelled to discuss whether what I did was actually safe. I also want to talk about the benefits of solitude, and if they outweigh the risks of a solo venture.
So what about bears? Just how dangerous are they? Here in Western North Carolina (WNC) they are as common as stray dogs. They wander into yards, open car doors, and even break into houses. Despite their prevalence, there are, on average, only three fatal attacks per year nationwide, though some years there are as few as zero1.
Here is where "death by bear" falls on the CDC list for 2005.2
Cause of death # dead
Cardiovascular disease 856,030
Transportation accidents 48,441
West Nile virus 119
Hornet/bee/wasp stings 48.5
Snake bites 5.2
Bear attacks 2
So worrying about being killed by a bear seems a little far fetched, but what about getting injured? It turns out that in the outdoors, the primary way you get injured is the same as everywhere else-slips, trips and falls. Mainly, I need to watch out for roots and stray rocks.
While bear attacks are relatively rare occurrences, if you ever make contact with a bear, you can either play dead or fight back. "If a bear is acting defensive, especially brown bears, it's a good idea to just play dead," according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G). When a bear perceives a human as food, the department says to fight back, "Concentrate on the bear's face or muzzle with anything you have on hand." The department warns people against running away from bears. "They will chase fleeing animals," according to ADF&G. "A charging bear might come within a few feet, before running off. It's important to stand your ground."
So that covers that problem - being eaten by a bear is not likely to happen, and given the number of bears that are now entering human habitations4- just as likely to happen in your living room if you live in WNC.
WHAT ABOUT PEOPLE?
While 1 out of 5 people fears the possibility of being murdered, the odds that a person will be murdered in any given year are about 1 in 18,690.5 Safety is even higher if you are a woman. Teenaged black males are most likely to be victimized, whereas elderly white females (me) have the lowest chance of being a victim.6 Location is the biggest risk factor for a solo hike. The US had 17,250 homicides in 2016, which equals a rate of 5.35 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. Though we are at a 30-year low for homicides in the US, I would rather go hiking in Monaco or Andorra where the homicide rate is 0.7
There are risks involved in a solo hike. While meeting a hungry bear, or a psychopath are not likely, they can still happen. Do the risks outweigh the benefits of being alone in the woods?
Let's define the terms. When I talk about being alone, I'm not talking about social isolation, which is associated with alcohol and drug abuse, anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide. Social isolation, an increasing problem in our society, is a state of complete, or near complete lack of contact between an individual and society, and can be caused by depression, illness, age or any number of factors over which people have little control.8Solitude is voluntary. Psychology Today defines solitude as a state of being alone without being lonely, and can lead to self-awareness.9Loneliness is a negative state, marked by a sense of isolation, a sense that something is missing. Solitude is a positive, constructive state of engagement with oneself.
WHY SPEND TIME ALONE?
Though western culture tends to equate a desire for alone time with people who are lonely, sad or "antisocial", seeking solitude can actually be quite healthy.10
Some benefits of being alone:
Rebooting your brain and unwinding - having time to think deeply can spark creativity
Improved concentration and increased productivity - oh the thoughts you'll think when there's no TV!
The opportunity to discover yourself and your voice - who are you when your friends and family aren't around?
Working through problems more effectively - being alone can lead to solutions you didn't expect to find.
Enhanced quality of relationships with others - solitude can increase empathy and compassion
Building mental strength- your ability to tolerate alone time can increase your happiness
Reduced behavior problems in kids - one study suggests that kids who learn to be by themselves are better behaved than other children.
HOW TO BE ALONE
An article I read from Psychology Today has five recommendations for getting some alone time11:
Disconnect - set aside time each day to unplug. I'm now limiting myself to checking my email at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. I'm so pleased with how free I feel in between. Also, I removed Facebook from my phone.
Get up early - I try to get up 30 minutes before my kids do, but sometimes I hit the snooze button. I will continue to try to make it a habit. When I do get up and journal alone on the back porch with some meditation music and coffee, I feel better able to face the day, and back-to-school tantrums.
Close your door - since I work at home this isn't as much of a problem for me - when my kids are at school, I'm in heaven. When I used to work at a college of nursing, I would put a sign on my door for two hours each day: "Working on an important project, please only knock if you really need to interrupt."
Use your lunchtime - what lunchtime? Does anyone eat lunch any more? And if you do eat lunch, aren't you doing it while doing three other things? Seriously though, try having a lunch date with YOU.
Schedule solitude - again, since I work from home, I have had to be creative here. I am trying to put a regular "solitude date" on my calendar so I will actually do it. The problem? It's so easy to move the appointment. I'd love to hear your suggestions.
BEING ALONE IN NATURE
This article isn't just about solitude, it's about being alone in nature. In a literature review of the topic, Thomsen, Powell and Monz (2018) report that exposure to and engagement with natural environments can provide significant health benefits. Research supports that being in nature leads to higher rates of physical activity, reduced blood pressure, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, as well as improved BMI. In addition, being in nature can give you an improved ability to cope with stress, improved mood and self-esteem, reduced anxiety and depression and increased attention levels.12
TO BE ALONE, OR NOT TO BE ALONE?
I've argued that being alone in the woods isn't any more dangerous than sitting on your couch eating a pizza. I've provided some evidence that women can safely be alone in the woods.13 I've even suggested that going out into the woods might improve your health. Ultimately, however, it's up to you. Schedule yourself for some alone time. Take a walk on that trail near your house after work today, get up early and sit on your back porch and listen to the world come alive. Your body and mind will thank you.
"I can't believe you are going to sleep outside in the woods by yourself, aren't you scared?" Said my good friend, Anna.
"Well yes, of course, I'm afraid, but I am more afraid not to go."
1. Bear Attacks - Killer Statistic That May Surprise You - The Alaska Life
2. FastStats - Deaths and Mortality
3. Bear Attacks - Killer Statistic That May Surprise You - The Alaska Life
4. 2 bears break through window while family inside home | CBC News
5. Dicing with death - The odds of being murdered
7. List of countries by intentional homicide rate - Wikipedia
8. Social isolation - Wikipedia
9. What Is Solitude? | Psychology Today
12. Thomsen, J. M., Powell, R. B. & Monz, C. 2018. A systematic review of the physical and mental health benefits of wildland recreation. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, 36. 123-148.