Just a Small Dose of Nature Soothes Stress
Some days, it seems as if nothing is going right. It may be a lot of little things adding up or one major thing bothering you, like a difficult project at work that’s not coming together, an argument with your significant other, or worries about a health issue. But whatever the cause may be, it is essential to recognize when you’re getting frazzled and do something to ease your stress. And achieving that relief might even be easier than you realize. According to new research, all it may take is a little time spent in nature.
The study, which was conducted at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, found that spending 20 minutes or more in nature is linked to a significant drop in stress hormone levels.1 These results are based on an investigation that included 36 men and women with a mean age of almost 46, all of whom were residing in urban areas.
Over the course of eight weeks, the subjects were given a mandate to visit an outdoor setting where they would feel as if they were encountering nature. They chose the locations themselves and decided when they wanted to go within the guidelines that it be three times a week for a minimum of 10 minutes per visit throughout the duration of the study. The volunteers were discouraged from engaging in certain activities that could affect their stress levels while out in their nature spot, including exercising, having conversations with others, reading, and, need I say it, using their cell phones.
At four random times, the researchers collected samples of the participants’ saliva both before and after one of the nature sessions. The levels of cortisol—the “fight or flight” stress hormone released by the adrenal glands—were measured and were found to be an average of 21.3 percent lower per hour after interacting with nature.
Interestingly, a length of 20 to 30 minutes spent outdoors appears to be the ideal duration to achieve the benefits of reduced cortisol levels. Longer periods of time in nature remained beneficial to the subjects, but the dip in cortisol was lower. The investigators also checked levels of alpha-amylase, which is an enzyme in the saliva known to be a reliable biomarker of stress levels. They discovered that those who chose to simply sit in their nature spot or did a combination of sitting and strolling had a 28 percent per hour reduction in alpha-amylase.
This study is obviously limited by the very small size of its population sample, which makes it difficult to say whether the results could be replicated in a larger, more diverse group. Yet despite that, its findings seem to be very much in line with those of other similar research. For example, a 2010 study at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom showed that just five minutes of exercise in a natural setting improves mental health.
And it would certainly do us no harm to start communing with nature a little more. We should “stop and smell the roses” for a reason. It is healthy for us to spend a little time outdoors in the sunshine and fresh air, admiring the beauty of the vast natural world that surrounds us. People who live in more urban environments might reap greater benefits since this is not a typical setting, so it would be good for you to find a nearby park or garden that could be your go-to place for nature time. Suburbanites and country dwellers might not need to make as much effort but should still reserve some time throughout the week to take a stroll around the neighborhood, or at least sit on the porch or in the backyard just taking in nature’s bounty without a cell phone in your hand.
If you have trouble getting to a nature spot regularly, a mural of a nature scene or images of flowers as your screen saver might be the next best thing. No joke. A 2008 study at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor found that looking at pictures of nature offers cognitive benefits similar to that of walking in nature.2
- 1. Hunter, MaryCarol R.; et al. "Urban Nature Experiences Reduce Stress in the Context of Daily Life Based on Salivary Biomarkers." Frontiers in Psychology. 4 April 2019. Accessed 10 April 2019. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00722/full.
- 2. Berman, Marc G.; et al. "The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature." Psychological Science. 1 December 2008. Accessed 11 April 2019. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02225.x.