Stress is the plague of the modern age. Everybody is struggling with it and most people don’t really know how to deal with it. We run around, constantly busy, working on getting ahead in life. We’re trying to meet obligations, expectations and to stay on top of our to-do list. We’re constantly checking our phones for notifications while juggling work and private life. Get that presentation done in time. Take the garbage out before it smells. Make sure the laundry is clean before you run out of underwear. Pay that bill. Call that client. Oh, and don’t forget to get fit and healthy.
No wonder we’re all going down the rabbit hole. So what do we do? We deal with it in whatever way makes us feel, well, less stressed. For some that means having a few beers every night to wind down, others meditate, some embrace the stress and convince themselves that that’s what a successful person’s life should be like.
I have had periods where I would come home after an 11h workday, lie on my bed and listen to ocean sounds for 2 hours before I was able to sleep. Good times!
Fortunately, there’s an increasing amount of research that is looking to understand the effects of stress on the brain, and what we can do to reduce it.
We already know the big items on the list, like getting more active, getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and meditating. We also know that caffeine, drinking, and smoking might seem like they’re helping but are actually stressing your body out even more. But what else is there?
Do I need to move to a cabin in the woods?
Personally, I found that going out into nature has had a huge impact on my stress levels. Whether that’s weekends spent in the mountains, camping, trekking through forests, or simply taking my canine buddy out for his daily walks in the park, I always feel so much more relaxed when I come back.
There are plenty of studies that show that being out in nature can reduce people’s stress levels. But let’s be honest, we can’t all live in the countryside where we have access to lush green forests, icy cold creeks, and snowy mountaintops all the time. So we will need to make due with the green we have around is the local park, or maybe the little patch of trees just outside of town.
But will a walk through a park have the same effect as walking through a forest? Does it make a difference how much time I spend there? Can I maybe just sit there and look at it? Can even a short visit reduce stress? Or do I need to hike up a mountain and camp out in the woods for days before I can start forgetting about work?
A group of researchers in Finland set up an experiment to find the answers. They took a bunch of people on three separate trips – to a park, to a forest, and to a busy city centre.
On each trip, the participants simply sat in chairs for 15 minutes looking at the scenery. This is cool in a park but must have been a bit awkward when they all rocked up downtown with their camping chairs. Doesn’t matter if it’s for science I say!
Anyway, once they’ve sat there staring at the view for 15 minutes, they were asked to go for a 30-minute walk. In order to monitor people’s state of mind throughout the whole shebang, the researchers used an entire arsenal of well-tested questionnaires with catchy names like the Restoration Outcome Scale or the Perceived Restorativeness Scale. By using all these different scales, they were able to measure the impact on people’s perceived stress-level (“I feel relaxed”, “I can forget everyday worries”), but also on their vitality (“I feel energised”, “I feel alive”), and their creativity (“I had some new ideas”).
The study naturally (ha!) confirmed what we already know, namely that being in green spaces has a massive positive effect on your mood, stress levels, vitality, and creativity. Even worse for the city, people were even more stressed out than before after sitting and looking at the city traffic for 15 minutes. When it’s nature vs concrete, nature wins every time.
However, when it comes to park versus forest, there was a much smaller difference than one might think. Both had the same significant positive effects, even after just sitting there and looking at the scenery for 15 minutes. A glimmer of hope for all us city dwellers!
It’s important to point out though that the forest will destress you more the longer you spend in it, whereas the park’s positive effect kind of flattens out over time. My personal totally unscientific theory is that that’s because you can walk around most parks in about half an hour, so you’ve maybe just kind of seen it all.
The park, love, look at it!
In summary, getting out into nature can help us massively to reduce stress and anxiety. But don’t worry, you don’t have to become a forest dwelling hermit or a mountaineer or anything. Even if you only have very little time on your hands, go find yourself a nice park, sit on a bench and just take it all in for a bit (make sure to look at trees and not at your phone though)
If you do have some more time and there’s a foresty bit close to where you live, think about heading there for a walk this weekend.
And if all else fails, other research suggests that just looking at an image of nature will already calm us down a bit, so here you go:
Tyrväinen, L., Ojala, A., Korpela, K., Lanki, T., Tsunetsugu, Y., & Kagawa, T. (2014). The influence of urban green environments on stress relief measures: A field experiment. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 38, 1-9.