The calming effect of nature

As humans we have become less connected to nature and as a result risk losing our essential health buffer.

When you have a busy work week and a family to care of, any opportunity to take care of yourself is precious. One of the easiest ways to do this is to step out into nature and let it do the rest.

 

How it works

When something happens and we perceive it as a threat, or we are asked to do more than we perceive we're capable of then we experience stress, i.e. a mismatch between what we can and have been asked to do. Once we have this thought our sympathetic nervous system, the ‘fight or flight’ branch of our autonomic nervous system, is activated. When we experience nature, our parasympathetic nervous system is activated, ‘the rest and digest’ branch of the autonomic nervous system, and its activation counteracts the already activated sympathetic nervous system. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated more than our sympathetic nervous system, we start to feel calm in our body and thoughts. And all it takes is for us to step mindfully outside into nature!
 

To maximise the impact of this natural phenomenon it is recommended you walk through a dense nature area using all of your senses to enjoy the scenery. A local park is ideal. If you would like to amp it up. studies show that “forest bathing,” not only leads to decreased stress hormones, but actually increases the natural killer cells of the immune system and the expression of anti-cancer proteins (3). 

 

If you are unable to visit a local park near where you are, research shows you can still enjoy some benefits from nature by viewing nature scenes. The more awe-inspiring the stronger the response. Sounds of nature appear to have similar benefits. Hearing recorded sounds from nature had similar effects on recovery from a stressful situation as the study involving nature images (2).

 

The benefits of going out into nature

There are plenty of benefits that come along with going out into nature and truly experiencing the natural beauty of the world. The evidence of the positive impacts of experiencing nature is growing and I have listed the main ones below:

  • Greater relaxation and stress relief
  • Increased resilience
  • Increased engagement with learning
  • Improved self-esteem
  • Increased capacity to engage socially
  • Fewer fears and worries and less anxiety
  • A calming sensation across the body and mind
  • Stronger immune system
  • Lower blood pressure and heart rate
  • Improved mood and reduced risk of depression

 

What’s even better is that some of these effects are produced immediately. You may feel apprehensive or stressed out before visiting a local park and feel a sense of relief as soon as you hear the chirping of the birds or the rustling of leaves on the ground.

 

Experiment and work out what calms YOU

Nature has something to offer each of our senses, so finding what is most calming for you might look a little different to someone else you know. Although each nature experience will be calming, when you are short of time, knowing the ideal nature experience can be helpful.

For example:

  • Do you enjoy the sounds of rushing water or a trickling stream?
  • Do you enjoy observing the colours that are around you?
  • Do you love the smell of newly bloomed flowers in early spring?
  • Do you enjoy touching the tree trunks or branches as you walk through the park?

 

Whatever it is that you prefer about nature that calms you the most, find somewhere that allows you to experience those specific things. Some days, going to the park and hearing the birds chirping might be enough for you to calm you down and bring you back to the present moment. But, to truly experience nature as it was meant to be experienced, you need to give yourself time to enjoy it.

 

That means making your trips into nature on the days when you really need it as well as the days when you don’t have other obligations. Setting aside a few hours for a hike or an entire day to explore a national park. That way, you don’t have to rush around to see everything or look back in regret thinking you missed something. It will also train your body to associate calm with nature enabling you to relax quicker when you have shorter amounts of time.

 

Remember to 'Turn Off Your Devices'

According to the American Psychological Association, about 86% of Americans will check their phone constantly. So, to truly get the most out of your time in nature, you’ll want to turn your phone to airplane mode while you’re savoring your nature experience. This allows you to truly focus on the world around you and have some time-out before re-grouping and getting back to what you need to be doing.

 

Final thoughts

Nature is something that very few people truly appreciate fully. But it’s known to produce healing effects and can improve your mental state indefinitely. When you get out into the forest, on top of a mountain, or along the shoreline, take the time to appreciate the sights, sounds, and smells. You’ll never feel as calm or free as you will when you’re out in the real world.

 

References

  1.  Passmore, H. & Holder, M. (2017)Noticing nature: Individual and social benefits of a two-week intervention, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12:6, 537-546, DOI: 1080/17439760.2016.1221126
  2. Annerstedt M, Jönsson P, Wallergård M, et al. Inducing physiological stress recovery with sounds of nature in a virtual reality forest–results from a pilot study. Physiology & Behavior; 2013; 118:240-50.
  3. Li Q, Morimoto K, Kobayashi M, et al. Visiting a forest, but not a city, increases human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins. International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology; 2008; 21(1):117-27.

 

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