Try this exercise: Close your eyes. Breathe deeply. Imagine yourself somewhere you feel totally at peace, relaxed and revived. If you’re like most people, you’re thinking of a beautiful natural environment. Whether it’s on a forest trail, on a sunny beach or in a boat on a crystal clear lake, many of us find serenity in idyllic natural settings. Researchers are helping us understand how nature may, indeed, be our best antidote for stress.
Reducing stress is key to living a healthier lifestyle. When we’re stressed, our blood pressure rises and our bodies produce more of the hormone cortisol. Chronically high cortisol and blood pressure can lead to heart disease and depression. Studies have found that relaxing in nature can lower blood pressure and reduce cortisol production, helping everything from weight loss to heart health. Of course, most of us can’t run off to a cottage in the woods every time we feel stress rising. Fortunately, there are a few simple ways we can incorporate nature into our homes, reducing stress without relying on pharmaceuticals. Use these five tips to embrace the stress-reducing power of nature in your daily life.
Gardening has been promoted for mental relaxation since the mid-1800s, and recent studies have found that horticultural programs can help relieve depression, anxiety, insomnia and general stress, as well as improve many other aspects of our overall well-being.
One researcher found that gardening after a stressful experience reduced cortisol levels significantly more than reading. And an extensive study in Germany found that gardening promotes contentment and calm while increasing energy levels.
If you have a yard, or can participate in a community garden, get out there to dig, plant and tend. In many regions, gardening can continue nearly year-round. Use season-extension techniques to grow well into autumn or even early winter, then start seeds indoors several weeks before spring begins. (You’ll even be exposed to soil microorganisms that improve mood and mental activity.)
During the depths of winter, or if you don’t have garden access, you can still benefit from being with plants. Simply viewing indoor plants has been found to lower blood pressure, reduce muscle tension and aid recovery from stress. Caring for houseplants works, too: Transplanting plants from one pot to another can induce mental calm and reduce physical tension.
2. Natural Sounds
The sounds of nature can be soothing—birdsong, flowing water, a gentle breeze through the trees. But urban living surrounds us with traffic noise, sirens, leaf blowers and mowers, all of which can increase anxiety and stress hormone levels.
A Swedish study found that people recovered more quickly from stress when they heard water and birds than when they didn’t. Exposure to natural sounds has also been shown to lower stress hormone levels and shift the brain into a relaxed state.
What can you do at home? Natural sounds such as chirping birds and flowing water can mask unwelcome noise. Consider installing a fountain indoors or out to diminish the sounds of civilization and soothe your senses. Put out birdseed and birdhouses, and landscape your yard with plants that attract a wide range of birds.
3. Water Therapy
Why are humans drawn to waterfalls the world over? Perhaps because water enhanced our ancestors’ survival, the presence of water in a natural environment often magnifies the stress-relieving experience. Just seeing and hearing water can significantly improve our mood and psychological well-being.
All you need to benefit from water’s healing qualities is a bathtub; immersion in warm water calms the central nervous system in a manner similar to that of meditation. Floating in warm water can reduce muscle tension, cardiac rate and cortisol levels. Or simply listen to a recording of flowing water or look at a photo of a peaceful natural water scene: Either can lower stress levels. Finally, if you’re going for a hike, seek out trails near rivers, streams, oceans or lakes.
4. Pet Therapy
Having a pet—especially a cat or dog—in the house can also reduce stress. Researchers at The State University of New York found that people performed significantly better on a stressful mental task when their pet was nearby. Interacting with therapy dogs has been shown to reduce cortisol levels, buffer other stress responses and induce mental relaxation. Several studies have found that interacting with dogs can increase the production of oxytocin—a hormone-like substance that facilitates social bonding, decreases stress and enhances a sense of security.
If you have a pet, you probably already know your furry friend can make you feel less stressed; now you know why. If you don’t have a pet, consider petsitting for a friend or neighbor, finding a place to go horseback riding, visiting a pet store or volunteering at a local animal shelter.
5. Walk in the Woods
Sometimes the key to a peaceful abode lies in getting out of it—even in winter. Although physical activity is always good for us, recent research suggests that physical activity in a natural setting may have unique health benefits. Japanese researchers have found that a stroll in the forest decreases cortisol levels, blood pressure and heart rate when compared to a walk in the city. Physical movement in a natural setting has also been shown to increase the activity of natural killer cells, which enhance immune strength and boost resistance to stress—for up to 30 days.
For the best effects, leave techno-toys at home. Keeping our forebrains engaged with incoming electronic data deprives us of needed mental downtime, diminishing the restorative effects of greenery, sunshine, natural scents and birdsong.
Look for places to go walking every day where you can be near trees. Just five minutes of “nature immersion” can improve your mood. Try to get out for a longer hike in nature weekly, or at least monthly. Everytrail.com offers a listing of hiking trails searchable by ZIP code.
Easy Ways to Stay Calm
Depending on where you live, winter may make it difficult to enjoy the benefits of nature outdoors. But you can still enjoy personal nature therapy at home with these tips.
• Play recorded nature sounds indoors—birds, ocean waves, breezes, rain, a stream—to help relax your body and mind.
• Take a warm foothbath to lessen stress and enhance your sleep by improving the stress-dampening aspects of your nervous system.
• Gaze at pictures of beautiful nature scenes to increase your brain’s alpha-wave activity, which is associated with relaxation.
• Tend indoor plants or find an arboretum in your town to visit when you need a break.
• Use aromatherapy to bring nature to your brain. Japanese researchers have found that vaporized cypress oil lessens fatigue and increases the activity of natural killer cells, which provide rapid response to virally infected cells and tumor formation.
Carol Venolia is the author of Healing Environments: Your Guide to Indoor Well-Being. Visit her at Come Home to Nature.