Stress Reduction Nature Style

by | May 14, 2021 | Blog, Uncategorized

This is Mental Health Awareness Week.  Although I have mixed feelings about making an event out of a thing I think should be completely normal, I felt this year I needed to add my voice.  You see the theme is nature and how nature is important for our mental wellbeing.  As this is obviously 100% the motivation behind me writing this blog, it didn’t feel like a week to sit out on the sidelines.  As the pandemic rumbles on and on, it seems again like nature is a balm that might soothe a lot of tired and anxious minds.  I’ve have written a post on nature and stress.  It’s a theme I’ve written about many times before but it’s one close to my heart.  I credit London parks with helping me walk of a few very serious bouts of stress and anxiety when really I didn’t think anything would work.

“Stress” is defined as a state of mental or emotional strain resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. It’s somewhat stating the obvious to say that the last 12+ months fit the description of “adverse or demanding circumstances” but even before that, stress thrown up by our busy lives has been something of a modern epidemic.

Typically our bodies react to stress by releasing a flood of stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol to get ready for action. Your heart pounds faster, muscles contract, you may notice your breath quickening and your senses becoming sharper. We evolved in this way to help us get away from imminent threats. This “fight or flight” response was important for our survival as a species. But our bodies haven’t evolved to know the difference between the stress that comes from running away from a lion and the stress that comes from dealing with fifteen competing tasks and 200 unread emails.

Many people talk about ‘thriving on stress’ but is that really the case? Short bouts of stress aren’t a problem but constantly operating with stress can have long-term impacts on our physical and mental health including high blood pressure, disturbed sleep, difficulty concentrating and a weakened immune system.

Harnessing the power of nature can help lower stress in ways you might not have realised. Here’s a few practical tips and how they might help:

Get Outside Into Natural Light. 
Try and spend some time outdoors every single day – even if it’s just sitting outside with a coffee.  As the average commute has shortened from one room to another, it is worth actually scheduling time to into the fresh air and away from artificial light.  Morning sunlight has a huge role in resetting our circadian rhythm, flushing out the sleep hormones which will help you feel brighter during the day and sleep better the next night.  Make time for a walk.  A 2018 study by the University of Luxembourg study showed that university students who walked outdoors regularly during their exams had lower levels of stress and depression than those who didn’t.  Regular walkers are less stressed than non-walkers. Think “skytime over screentime” – more of the former to balance out the latter.
Stress can tress can lead to the frustrating cycle of poor concentration which leads to struggling to get things which of course leads to more stress. Taking time ‘to clear your head’ isn’t just an expression.  In the 1980s, the theory of Attention Restoration Theory (ART) was developed by environmental psychologists in Michigan. This sets out the idea that mental fatigue can be rebalanced by the natural world acting to give your brain a rest. The benefits of ART have been shown even with micro-breaks.  In a 2015 experiment, participants were asked to look up from a screen and out over a nature scene for just 40 seconds between tasks.  Those that did performed better and made fewer mistakes than those that took a break but looked out over concrete.  
Tricks of the Mind
If you’re stuck on your screen for long periods of time and getting outside isn’t going to be an option, being able to see nature or having images of nature nearby can lower stress and promote calmness.  A 2016 study from the Netherlands demonstrated that looking at images of nature was enough to lower stress levels by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, switching off the body’s fight or flight response. Our bodies find the sight of nature to be calming and we can trick it with images if the real thing isn’t available.

Having a close relationship with nature is a helpful tool to compensate for day-to-day stresses. It’s not a panacea of course. If stress is prolonged and not improving, seek professional advice and guidance. Modern life is stressful. It’s ok not to be ok.