This Is How Nature Can Dramatically Cut Your Stress In Just 20 Minutes
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
For those of us prone to getting way too stressed out, we might soon be getting a new kind of prescription for our mental ailments at the doctor's office: a so-called nature pill.
That's because a new study published today in the journal Frontiers in Psychology has narrowed down a precise nature formula for significant stress relief.
What is a nature pill?
Nature pills are exactly what they sound like: a prescription from a health provider to get outside and spend a set amount of time in nature. This is not a joke! They've actually been in use for several years in an attempt to treat the growing epidemic of what some call "nature-deficit disorder," a problem facing the vast majority of populations in modernized societies as we spend more and more time indoors, in front of screens, and basking in artificial light and environments for the majority of our days.
Plenty of research shows being in nature comes with a wide myriad of health benefits, many of which are physical: reduced inflammation, lower blood pressure, faster recovery from illness or injury, and even a longer life span, to name just a few. And mentally? Your casual stroll in the park actually stimulates a blissful flood of dopamine and serotonin in your brain, triggering its reward centers, slowing down its fear centers, and putting it in a "meditative state." One study last year found teens who live closer to green spaces are less depressed than their more urban peers, and many studies show a short walk through green space significantly reduces our cortisol levels, one of our key hormones tied to stress.
What's in the prescription?
That's exactly what MaryCarol Hunter, an ecologist, landscape architect, and the lead researcher behind the new Frontiers study, wanted to pinpoint. "We know that spending time in nature reduces stress, but until now it was unclear how much is enough, how often to do it, or even what kind of nature experience will benefit us," Hunter explained in a news release. She adds in the paper detailing her findings, "Our ultimate goal is to articulate a 'nature prescription' for use by health care providers as a preventive, self-administered health care treatment for mental well-being that is low in cost and effective in everyday settings."
It's hard for people to make time for self-care in general, let alone going out of your way to hang out in green spaces. So Hunter sought to figure out the most efficient way to get the benefits of nature.
She instructed 36 participants to spend time outdoors three times a week for a total of eight weeks, allowing each person to determine where, when, and how long they'd do it for each time. The participants collected saliva samples before and after their nature experience on four of those days. During the nature experience, they couldn't use social media, engage in conversations, read, or exercise.
After analyzing the samples, Hunter found spending time in nature did indeed drop cortisol levels substantially, and the amount of time spent was linked to the amount of stress reduction. The most efficient stress relief benefits came from exactly 20 to 30 minutes of sitting or walking in nature; that's when cortisol levels were dropping at their greatest rate. If a person stayed in nature longer, their stress levels continued to decrease significantly, just at a reduced rate.
"Our study shows that for the greatest payoff, in terms of efficiently lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, you should spend 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking in a place that provides you with a sense of nature," Hunter said. "Health care practitioners can use our results as an evidence-based rule of thumb on what to put in a nature-pill prescription."
How to take a nature pill.
According to these findings, a nature pill targeting stress relief should involve spending 20 to 30 minutes in a place that makes you feel connected to nature—it could be your local park, your backyard, a garden, or a forested mountainside. The study suggests disconnecting from your tech and not doing anything stimulating like reading or exercising (though I'm sure a good outdoor workout never hurt anyone).
Other than those stipulations, you can take your "pill" however you want. Head for your nearest park the next time you're drowning in stress for an immediate mood booster, or consider building green into your weekly routine. Make a habit of taking your lunch outside when weather permits, incorporating a walk through green areas on your way to work, or doing your morning meditation on the roof, porch, or balcony.
"Whatever you choose to do, be in nature mindfully," Eva Selhub, a medical doctor who specializes in mind-body medicine, writes at mbg. She emphasizes that you should be "engaging all your senses, observing your surroundings without judgment, and appreciating everything around you" to get the full benefits.
And of course, at the end of the day, there are no real "rules" for how to spend time outdoors. As long as you're out there, you're soaking up something good.
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