Jinnene Foster

Writing and Yoga & Meditation Teacher, Wellness Blog Writer

how nature decreases mental stress

Anxiety Relief, Appreciating Nature, Self-Care, Spirituality

How nature decreases mental stress

|Posted by Jinnene| Photo by Philip Brown of Unsplash

David Strayer, PhD. and cognitive neuroscientist researched the perilous impacts of technological distraction on performance and productivity, implying that collective society is mentally drained. The good news is that nature decreases mental stress.

As an elixir for digital interruptions, Strayer’s years-long research has indicated that spending time outdoors can regenerate attention and stimulate creativity. Read an Outside Magazine article by Carolyn Gregoire for more on this thoughtful connection.

For those who have spent great deals of time outside, the positive outcomes of time in nature should come as no surprise. And yet, based on the prevalence of cell-phone usage for children and elderly alike, we seem to be in need of reminders to get outside.

In fact, as technology continues to dictate the pace at which our minds process, it becomes clear that in order to live in an authentic way, we must consider our inherent link to the natural world.

Nature allows the brain to rest

Strayer backs this up when he reports, “[longer] term studies looking at brain activity of people after three days of being in nature reveal lower levels of theta activity suggesting that their brains had rested.”

The thoughtful work of Strayer invites us to explore: do we consider how device usage impacts our own efforts toward performance—either at work, as parents, or concerning personal endeavors?

Furthermore, it puts us on the hook to consider not only what’s at stake if we discount this inevitable link, but also what more can be gained if we observe how nature decreases mental stress.

Nature constantly heals us, and can do so further if we bring it into our lives more regularly. For those of us well aware of this paradigm, what prevents us from making the natural world more of a priority?

Perhaps we’re too easily distracted, as Strayer seems to think.

Nature can aid ADHD and focus

If we go searching for data on the healing power of nature for mental ailments, we’ll not have to search for long. The Internet is teeming with case after case of Mother Earth’s wellness benefits for seniors, the middle-aged, and certainly children.

In a TIME magazine article entitled, “The Healing Power of Nature” by Alexandra Sifferlin, we learn of interesting connections made between children struggling with ADHD and nature’s ability to heal.

Sifferlin writes that environmental and behavior scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Ming Kuo, along with her team of researchers found that “children who regularly played in outdoor areas had milder ADHD symptoms, according to their parents, than children who played indoors or in areas with less nature access.”

While one need not suggest that nature single handedly heals concerns of attention, focus, depression or the like, scientists continue to explore new data that reveal for us, in new and exciting ways, just how powerful spending time outdoors can be for achieving wellness.

I reflect on similar concerns of fractured focus, compromised productivity, and mental fatigue frequently. Over the years, my mother Lois and I have reflected on the issues together.

Nature takes us closer to our senses

Lois was always good about getting me exposed to nature from young ages. I didn’t have the distraction of devices like smart phones or laptops when I was a child, so perhaps that made it easier to focus on wildlife.

I grew up in Ann Arbor, and we’d go camping in northern Michigan. We’d visit a series of state parks, take long drives through farmland, and occasionally visit an apple orchard called Wiards.

The sugary scent of caramel apples hardening, or cinnamon donuts heating in huge ovens stays with me to this day. So too does the crispness of the fall air as we traipsed around the orchard grounds, and searched for picnic tables to munch on our sweet delights.

As I got older, Lois and I continued to rotate through a set of parks where we enjoyed walking. Eventually, we came to hold dear a spot called Crabtree Nature Center in Barrington Hills (a Chicago suburb).

We love Crabtree still for many reasons–rustic, muddy trails and the park’s varied landscape features: grass fields, open meadows, algae-infested ponds, and scattered forests.

As an added bonus, Crabtree is a wildlife refuge. Various animals are housed there if they’ve been maimed and cannot exist peaceably in the wild. These beasts are primarily big birds.

Nature offers connections to wildlife

Among the community’s avian friends is a great barred owl that Lois and I have coined “Baardo.” As you can tell in the image featured with this post, barred owls sport rich, dark eyes that appear close together, ostensibly to aid in their story of wisdom and timelessness.

The barred owl’s intricate markings make me certain its mystical origin is otherworldly; that they exist as some kind of link between what’s here and what could be.

One recent winter while I was visiting my Chicago-bound parents from Seattle, Lois planned for us to adventure on what was called an “owl walk” at Crabtree. To our surprise, we successfully recruited my dad, Bob (he doesn’t often spend as much time walking outdoors as we do).

The event’s buy-in for participants might have been the promise of a dark and mysterious  evening walk along the forested trail with intention to listen for owls among trees.

In order for owl-walk participants to identify several types of owl calls, a light-hearted docent called Karen held an informational session inside the nature center to offer a slide show on all things North American owls.

While she talked, Karen passed around various owl wing-feather samples to the group. In this way, our tactile interactions could bring us closer to the world of owls. For me, it worked: just holding an owl feature of any sort filled me with wonder.

Nature activates curiosity

Inviting the group to explore our senses further, Karen played digital sounds of various owl calls. My favorite (as you might now know) was the barred owl’s call. Karen said we could use a relatable lyric to identify this owl: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you? Who cooks for youuu?

After about 30 minutes of owl class, it was time to hit the trail to put our knowledge into practice. Though I was skeptical we’d hear an owl call, I couldn’t wait to venture into the wintery evening and face the mysterious forces that lurk among tree and bog (frozen bog, in our case).

Lois, Bob and I stayed pretty close together. As we walked, the group (about 25 of us) remained silent, save for a few hushed whispers. Karen guided us to a huge oak tree, under which we stood and strained our ears to identify anything owlish.

To no avail, so on came the smart phone screens, and again the sound of digitized owl calls. Presumably folks figured if they could emulate an authentic owl call, a coy owl lurking in the branches above might make herself known. Hmm. I returned to my role as skeptic.

After a series of quiet moments and more fabricated, tinny owl noises, Karen announced that the hunt would continue. Plodding along the hard-packed mud trail we went, the chilly bite of winter wind on our cheeks. I feared for Bob; he’s a slight man, and he seemed to be very cold and somewhat out of his element.

Nature puts us in the present

In an article put out by University of Minnesota’s Taking Charge of Your Health & Wellbeing website, entitled, “How Does Nature Impact our Wellbeing?” we learn that:

Being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, reduces anger, fear, and stress and increases pleasant feelings. Exposure to nature not only makes you feel better emotionally, it contributes to your physical wellbeing, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones.”

Invigorating were my senses during that night at Crabtree. I reflect on this quote in tandem to that night with my parents, and I can see the inevitable link between felt sense and science: nature holds healing power.

As we stood under that second giant tree, I wiggled my numbing toes, and drew in a nourishing breath.

A revelation visited me: who really cares if we hear an owl? Our present joy is that we’re communing with owls; we’re sending energy into the center of this nature-loving group of folks, and transmitting a message: we sense you, owl friends. We’re glad you’re here (somewhere).

The second tree yielded no owl calls, nor did the third. The third giant tree (maple this time?) kicked off a false alarm. A couple participants reported that they swore they heard something, but no…it was just a creaky branch.

As we bid our farewells, tingling sensation hurling about in our shivering chests, we thanked Karen for a lovely evening. “Better luck next time,” she told us. “Continue to listen for the calls!”

Nature visits and reminds us of its power

And so I did. Here in the northwest, I swear I can hear an owl often. Sometimes in error, I misplace the call for another bird’s obscure cry.

But a couple weeks ago while my partner and I read in bed, I detected the lyric with uncertainty from the woods outside: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you? Who cooks for youuu?

“Was that an owl?” My voice filled with glee. Silence. The cry. “It is!” My partner relayed amusement as he confirmed my suspicions. And on went our communion, the two of us and that distant owl. We surmised our new friend could be heard from a woody wetland behind the high school across the street.

The sound of our feathered friend’s call filled my heart with fascination and delight. I would believe that during the space of roughly 40 minutes the owl was audible, that my stress hormones decreased, that my heart-rate lowered, that fear and anger were distant worlds away, and that I had further established the path for more owl lyrics to come.

Nature heals us through the breath

Pause for a moment and reflect: How can you embrace nature in your world?

In order to find ways to be more present, you might check out my blog post on incorporating self awareness into your everyday through yoga: Why you should practice easy yoga everyday

As always, I’d love to hear what you think about this material, or what you’re doing to live a more mindful life. Contact me here.

Further Reading:

Alexandra Sifferlin. “The Healing Power of Nature.” TIME. July 14, 2016.

“How Does Nature Impact Our Wellbeing?” Taking Charge of Your Health & Wellbeing, University of Minnesota. 

Carolyn Gregoire. “The New Science of the Creative Brain on Nature.” Outside Magazine. March 18, 2016.