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  • Writer's pictureGabby Pavlovic

How nature helps with stress

Updated: Jun 5

Do you ever step outside after slogging away at the desk for hours and feel instantly better?


Perhaps getting outside for your morning walk is your favourite way to start the day, because it allows you to feel calm, grounded, and ready for what’s ahead of you that day.


Many of us feel less stressed and anxious when we spend time outside, and there are many different reasons for this, so today I’d like to explore 6 ways nature might be able to help you manage stress.


Forest in Victoria, Australia

1. Feel-good plant chemicals


Ever walk out into a dense pine forest and instantly feel at ease when you smell that crisp, clean aroma from the trees? You smell the earthy bark, or even the leaves, and perhaps depending on where you are and what season you’re in, you even get to experience an array of floral scents – I can almost smell all the smells just imagining it!


That crisp, characteristic fragrance which is somehow simultaneously invigorating and calming is thanks to the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) produced by the plants.


These VOCs, which include compounds like phytoncides and terpenes are aromatic compounds which are known to exert pharmacological activity, and have been shown to exhibit calming effects on our nervous system when we are exposed to them [1], such as when walking in a forest, for example!


2. Physical activity


It is well known that physical activity has numerous benefits on helping us deal with the negative effects of stress [2], so let us explore this further.


People who are more physically active have been shown to be better equipped to respond to the negative effects of stress, particularly when physical activity is maintained during stressful periods [3]. On a physiological level, we also see that markers of stress like cortisol levels and heart rate show changes which reflect improved tolerance and adaptation to stress following physical activity [4].


When we look at physical activity which is undertaken in more natural settings, we see improved mental health outcomes and reduced mental health risk compared to other environments such as more built-up or urban settings [5].


3. Grounding / Earthing


Direct contact between the human body and the earth, known as grounding or earthing, could provide another mechanism for how we respond to stress better when in nature. To explain how this works, we need to talk a little bit about the earth’s bioelectrical potential…


The surface of the earth exhibits negative bioelectrical potential, and this net negative charge can have a direct impact on the human body. This direct impact occurs via electron transfer, in that the negative potential of the earth acts to balance out the positive charge of our bodies.


Our bodies tend to have a more positive charge due to what is known as oxidative stress, a natural process which happens in our cells as a result of cellular energy production. This process gives rise to what are known as free radicals or reactive oxygen species (ROS), which in excess can contribute to and exacerbate inflammatory processes in the body [6].


The natural levels of ROS can get a little out of hand due to myriad factors which contribute to a more inflamed state in the body, such as poor food choices, toxin exposure, unrestorative sleep, and so on.


barefoot living

So back to the earth’s surface… when we make direct contact with the earth’s surface, its negative charge helps to quench ROS (positively charged), thereby reducing chronic inflammation [7].

In terms of how grounding impacts our response to stress in particular, use of grounding technology (such as grounding mats) have shown improved physiological stress tolerance and enhanced energy for massage therapists who used these grounding technologies [8].


So that’s a bit about how grounding / earthing works, but how can we apply this in our lives to improve our ability to handle stress? Well, spending just thirty minutes a day of walking in nature barefoot (skin to earth contact) may reduce stress significantly [9], so get your shoes off, get in touch with the earth and see how you feel!


4. Sunshine


There is so much to be said about the beneficial effects of sunlight for our health, so I’ll have to write an entire article on that at some point. Until then, it is probably no surprise that sunlight might be one of the factors behind how nature helps with stress.


A recent systematic review of the literature found that exposure to sunlight during the day lowers the risk of depression, improves mood, and is important to maintain good mental health generally [10]. The authors noted that sun exposure was particularly beneficial alongside spending leisurely time in green spaces and being physically active outside. So next time you want to have a daily walk, workout, or down-time, consider spending that time in nature to maximise the benefits.


5. Breathing in better air

Redwood forest Warburton

As a species we have not evolved to live within four walls, surprise surprise! The air quality of our workplaces, homes, and other buildings cannot compare to the quality of air in natural environments. This is something Nicole Bijlsma and I discussed in Episode 33 – The Impact of Building Biology on Our Health, where Nicole shared some tips to improve the air quality inside the home.


You will often see studies on air quality refer to particle pollution as “particulate matter” (PM) which can refer to a wide array of particles in the air from dust, dirt, and so on. It has been shown that environments with decent tree density (such as forests) have lower PM concentrations compared to urban areas, and the reason for this is that the trees actively filter out the particles in the air [11].


Getting good quality air into our lungs is going to benefit us, of course, but the way we breathe has more of an effect on our ability to handle stress by regulating our nervous system, with poor breathing patterns often contributing to stress and anxiety. This is something I discuss with Tim Altman in Episode 34 of the Revitalising Health Podcast.


So if you can get outside to a place that has plenty of trees, not only will they release some calming compounds for you to breathe in, but they will also be filtering the air for you – thanks trees!


6. Connectedness


There are two ways we could look at how ‘connectedness’ acts as a mechanism behind how nature helps with stress.


Firstly, we can look at the social connectedness that can happen when we interact with others in nature, given accessing green space often happens when we are with other people, and this is known to improve not only resilience to stress, but our mood as well [12].


Secondly, we can look at nature connectedness, which is essentially how a person relates with nature, which is a very subjective and personal thing [13].


meditating in redwood forest warburton

The tendency for humans to want to affiliate with nature, and upon doing so, experiencing improved well-being and mood, is referred to as “biophilia” [14]. On the flipside of this is “biophobia”, which describes the opposite to biophilia, in that a person may be fearful of, or have a disdain for nature. From an evolutionary perspective, both these relationships with nature serve to benefit the human, in that they both serve as adaptive strategies to be able to determine if a certain area or environment provides sources of food, water, shelter, as well as potential dangers such as predators [15].


This topic can definitely go a lot deeper, but I won’t do that to you (not right now, anyway)! The takeaway from this is that if someone’s relationship with nature is a positive one, you might expect them to have improved stress resilience when exposed to nature frequently, as by nurturing their connection with the natural world, they are nurturing themselves in ways we may never even realise.


Further thoughts


The mechanisms I’ve discussed above which could help to explain how nature helps with stress could themselves be explained further by looking at the psychoevolutionary model. This model suggests that nature itself directly impacts the human mind and body, in that it can exert changes on a psychological and physiological level [16].


Perhaps this is why humans intentionally seek out natural environments that provide a sense of relaxation and calm as a way of compensating for the stress that comes with the demands of modern life.


Richard Louv has written a wonderful book titled, ‘The nature principle: Reconnecting with life in a virtual age’, and in it he even uses the term “Vitamin N” to describe this innate tendency we have to self-prescribe nature in our daily lives.


Takeaways


Here are the points to remember from what we’ve explored here today:

  • Aromatic chemicals released by plants (especially trees) help calm our nervous systems so we can deal with stress better.

  • Moving your body is good for managing stress, but moving your body outside in nature is even better compared to moving inside or in a more urbanised setting.

  • Earthing or grounding (preferably making direct skin to earth contact) may help us to be better able to deal with stress by inducing bioelectrical balance within our bodies, and aiming for 30 minutes daily may be a great way to start.

  • Getting exposure to sunlight on a daily basis is good for us on so many levels, particularly for our mood.

  • Getting out for some “fresh air” can be better achieved by spending time in areas with plenty of trees, taking some of the physiological stress off us that can come with spending too much time indoors and in the built environment.

  • Connecting with ourselves and with others in nature can be a very healing process, not to mention great stress relief!

  • As a species we have adapted to live in natural settings, so nature could be working in many ways we may not even realise to help use adapt to stress.


Next time you are looking for natural stress and anxiety relief, remember that getting in touch with nature herself is one of the best ways to do this!




References


1. Antonelli M, Donelli D, Barbieri G, Valussi M, Maggini V, Firenzuoli F. 2020. Forest volatile organic compounds and their effects on human health: a state-of-the-art review. Int J Environ Res Public Health 17(18): 6506.

2. Barton, J., & Pretty, J. (2010). What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improving mental health? A multi-study analysis. Environmental science & technology, 44(10), 3947-3955.

3. Puterman, E., Weiss, J., Beauchamp, M. R., Mogle, J., & Almeida, D. M. (2017). Physical activity and negative affective reactivity in daily life. Health Psychology, 36(12), 1186.

4. Klaperski, S., von Dawans, B., Heinrichs, M., & Fuchs, R. (2013). Does the level of physical exercise affect physiological and psychological responses to psychosocial stress in women? Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 14(2), 266-274.

6. Biswas, S. K. (2016). Does the interdependence between oxidative stress and inflammation explain the antioxidant paradox? Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity, 2016.

7. Chevalier, G., Sinatra, S. T., Oschman, J. L., Sokal, K., & Sokal, P. (2012). Earthing: health implications of reconnecting the human body to the earth's surface electrons. Journal of environmental and public health, 2012.

8. Chevalier, G., Patel, S., Weiss, L., Chopra, D., & Mills, P. J. (2019). The effects of grounding (earthing) on bodyworkers’ pain and overall quality of life: A randomized controlled trial. Explore, 15(3), 181-190.

9. Ober, C., Sinatra, S. T., & Zucker, M. (2010). Earthing: the most important health discovery ever? Basic Health Publications, Inc.

10. Taniguchi, K., Takano, M., Tobari, Y., Hayano, M., Nakajima, S., Mimura, M., ... & Noda, Y. (2022). Influence of External Natural Environment Including Sunshine Exposure on Public Mental Health: A Systematic Review. Psychiatry International, 3(1), 91-113.

11. Mei, P., Malik, V., Harper, R. W., & Jiménez, J. M. (2021). Air pollution, human health and the benefits of trees: A biomolecular and physiologic perspective. Arboricultural Journal, 43(1), 19-40.

12. Thompson, C. W., Roe, J., Aspinall, P., Mitchell, R., Clow, A., & Miller, D. (2012). More green space is linked to less stress in deprived communities: Evidence from salivary cortisol patterns. Landscape and urban planning, 105(3), 221-229.

13. Pritchard, A., Richardson, M., Sheffield, D., & McEwan, K. (2019). The relationship between nature connectedness and eudaimonic well-being: A meta-analysis. Journal of Happiness Studies, 21(3), 1145-1167.

14. Ulrich, R. S. (1993). Biophilia, biophobia, and natural landscapes. In S. R. Kellert, E. O. Wilson, (Eds.), The Biophilia Hypothesis, (pp. 73-137). Island Press.

15. Kobayashi, H., Song, C., Ikei, H., Park, B. J., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2019). Combined effect of walking and forest environment on salivary cortisol concentration. Frontiers in public health, 7, 376.

16. Ulrich, R. S., Simons, R. F., Losito, B. D., Fiorito, E., Miles, M. A., & Zelson, M. (1991). Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal of environmental psychology, 11(3), 201-230.

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