What Are 'Awe Breaks,' And How Can They Improve Your Mental Health?

Have you noticed how stepping out on your balcony and looking at the trees in front of your home, after a long day of staying indoors, seems to instantly improve your mood? What about that time when you forced yourself to get outdoors and go for a walk after spending an entire week working from home? Even a simple visit to the beach to watch the waves crash onto the shore can make you feel a sense of wonder that is unparalleled. 

What you become aware of, in instances like these, is how small and inconsequential you are in the grand scheme of things. The world, nature, and the universe are so much bigger, and yet you are a part of it all. The paradox of it all can make you feel humble, emotional, and grateful. It can also instantly lift your mind from worry. 

Awe is something we can easily feel but we seldom seek out. Unlike children who admire everything that comes into contact with them, as adults, we can become encumbered by responsibilities, goals, work targets, and other stressors. Turns out there's an interesting and effective way you can take a break during a work shift that can also help with your mental health. "Awe breaks" or the meditative and scientifically-studied practice of "awe walks" hold the answer. 

Defining awe breaks

As Dacher Keltner, a University of California professor of psychology and author of the 2017 study focused on awe, told The Guardian, "There's suggestive evidence that awe activates oxytocin release, which makes you feel more cooperative and connected. Some kinds of awe deactivate the amygdala, which is a threat-related region of the brain." It can become easy to get stuck in the rut of life — especially when work and family responsibilities pile up. We can become irritable and hyper-focused on problems. By placing ourselves in situations where we can feel awe, we're essentially training our brain to become happy. We're opening ourselves up to be connected to something larger than us. We improve how we feel.

Awe can come from looking at skyscrapers from your especially tall office building or taking a quick walk down a busy, yet new street to take in the different sights and sounds. They don't always have to involve being surrounded by nature, especially if the option isn't available to you. The idea is to remove yourself from the mundane and position yourself in the presence of greatness. 

The influence of awe walks on mental health has been studied too. Subjects of this particular study were older adults — those in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. What the researchers found is that those who took short weekly walks that involved taking in the novelty around them reported greater levels of joy as opposed to those who didn't.  

How to take awe breaks for a happier you

Not everyone is going to be able to step outside of a work environment on a daily basis and take a stroll down a street lined with beautiful trees. So it's important to craft your awe breaks in such a way that you can consistently do them. To you, it might even look like decorating your apartment or office space with indoor plants or turning on a nature documentary. If you enjoy delving into history or architecture for a sense of wonderment, try doing that during your breaks. There is no hard and fast rule of how they should look. The key is to find something that makes you feel amazed and do it regularly. 

For Sravya Attaluri, who is managing depression and anxiety, it's about taking awe walks down different routes every time. She told Hello!, "Being stuck at home while feeling anxious can feel claustrophobic. Going for an awe walk in nature helps me calm down, regulate my breathing, and connect with my environment." If you're able to go for a walk in nature during a work day, leave your phone behind. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for what's around you and take them all in. Notice the small things you otherwise might miss. 

Taking awe breaks is a great way to care for your mental health, especially if you can't afford therapy. Simply shifting your focus outward instead of focusing inward can do wonders.