“In every walk with nature one receives more than he seeks.”
John Muir, Naturalist (1838–1914)
Got to give it to the man — he was right.
And research is proving just how forward-thinking that quote actually is.
It’s true for most of us that when we get out to hike, play sports, walk the dogs or bask in the sun we’re not thinking about our health. We’re thinking it’s fun!
But a growing body of scientific research is proving nature is good for our health and wellness, too — including relieving stress.
Stress can be crafty and disguise itself in simple ways like sleeplessness or headaches. Or show itself more forcefully in mood shifts like anger, sadness, or irritability.
We’ve all felt it. We all know we don’t like it.
In fact, according to the annual poll on stress taken by the American Psychological Association, U.S. adults rated their general stress level for spring 2020 at a 5.4 on a 10-point scale — a significantly higher number than in the spring of 2019 which was at 4.9.
“Stress is a byproduct of the body’s response to a change in the environment that prepares us to act in a protective manner. Physiologically, it is associated with several indicators, including increased heart rate, cortisol levels, and focused attention and awareness. Modest levels of stress are adaptive and necessary for action and survival,” says Dr. Diana Concannon, licensed psychologist, and crisis response expert.
Concannon, who is Dean of the California School of Forensic Studies at Alliant International University, where she also serves as Associate Provost, paints a different picture for chronic stress:
“Chronic levels of stress, however, are associated with poor health outcomes, including hypertension, heart disease, depression, and anxiety.”
The effects of stress are scary. And in these days and times, stress seems unavoidable.
But there are ways we can relieve stress.
And Mother Nature has given us one of the best stress management tools ever: the great outdoors.
“. . . finding ways to safely engage in nature can provide us with a calming sense of perspective and refuge, reconnecting us — if even for a few moments — to one of the aspects of the world that has not profoundly changed.”
Diana Concannon, licensed psychologist
Dean of the California School of Forensic Studies at Alliant International University.
How Much Nature?
Just as we need 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity a week or 10,000 steps a day, there is a certain dose of nature that we should get, too.
“It’s well-known that getting outdoors in nature can be good for people’s health and well-being, but until now we’ve not been able to say how much is enough,” says Dr. Matthew P. White of the University of Exeter Medical School. White and colleagues conducted a study on the health benefits of people who spent time in natural environments.
“Two hours a week is hopefully a realistic target for many people, especially given that it can be spread over an entire week to get the benefit,” says White.
Two hours a week is less than twenty minutes a day!
So when you’re feeling stressed don’t reach for that bag of cookies. Save your waistline.
Get yourself outside and enjoy nature in one of these four ways instead.
If your mother ever told you to ‘get some sun, it’ll do you good’ she wasn’t wrong.
Being outside on a sunny day and feeling that kiss of heat on our face is enough to bring out a smile. Why?
How does this help reduce stress?
According to Healthline.com, “Serotonin is associated with boosting mood and helping a person feel calm and focused.”
Sunshine also gives us vitamin D.
“Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to numerous health concerns, including depression,” says Jill Thompson, Medical Director of Harmony Recovery Group. “Just 20 minutes of sun exposure per day can help your body to produce Vitamin D.”
Vitamin D helps our body keep serotonin — and therefore our feelings of happiness — at high levels.
2. Forests and Parks (Green Spaces)
Combating stress is a walk in the park.
According to Dr. Qing Li in his book on forest bathing, “The sounds of the forest, the scent of the trees. . . these things give us a sense of comfort. They ease our stress and worry.”
And he would know.
Li led the research on the much-quoted forest bathing study published in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine.
A stroll in the forest reduces blood pressure, slows heart rate, and lowers cortisol, our primary stress hormone. It also decreases feelings of worries and demands while increasing joy.
“Nature is one of the most common things we see missing from professionals and family’s lives,” says Michael McGarry, a licensed therapist and co-founder of Atlas, a therapy company based in NYC.
“When people are able to remove themselves from anxiety and stress triggers such as lengthy work hours from their computer [or] viewing potentially toxic social media posts, they immediately experience a certain degree of relief,” says McGarry and offers the following.
“Living in a dense city can make it difficult to immerse yourself in nature, but even small parks with plenty of greenery is a necessary escape that will instantly improve mental health!”
3. Beaches and Lakes (Blue Spaces)
The woods not for you? Try a trip to the water for some stress relief.
In part, it’s the view that relaxes us.
“A 2016 Michigan State University study found that looking at a large blue space, such as the ocean, lowered levels of psychological distress,” says psychotherapist Jennifer Tomko, LCSW.
Another factor of water that helps relax us is the ocean air itself. Full of negative ions, when we inhale them they increase our serotonin — or our happiness — level.
Even the sound of water like the cascade of a waterfall puts our minds in a relaxed state.
Tomko, owner of Clarity Health Solutions in Jupiter, Florida says, “The sound of the crashing ocean waves is soothing, which is why babies and adults often listen to this using a sound machine to help them sleep. It has a calming effect.”
4. Earth (Ground)
Battling stress doesn’t require a special trip. Your own backyard will do.
Dr. Tracy Dalgleish, clinical psychologist says, “Nature offers us the opportunity to get into the present moment using all of our senses. What we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. This is a positive shift [keeping our] mind [from] over-analyzing.”
Dalgleish, founder of Integrated Wellness in Ottawa, Ontario, shares this fact: “Research shows that when we are engaged in mindfulness and present-moment awareness, such that is offered by being in nature, we are better able to deal with stress, have sustained and improved concentration, make decisions more easily, and cope with our difficult emotions.
“For example, when a rush of emotion washes over you, you can go outside and put your feet in the grass,” Dalgleish offers. “Notice the feel of the grass on your feet. Notice the sounds that you hear. Notice the smell around you and the colour of the grass. This type of grounding exercise helps you down regulate the intense emotion and come back to a state of being calm.”
If you’re looking for stress relief, take some advice from the mental health professionals above.
Get outdoors and keep a standing date with Mother Nature.
Your body and mind will thank you for it.