By Tanya Kowalenko, Educator and Event Planner for C.M.H.A. H.K.P.R.
“…the wind rustling in the trees, the water running out of a pond, the smell of damp soil, the heat of the sun warming the skin, face, hands and arms, all this is an encouragement to natural relaxation, and brings a feeling of physical and mental well-being.”1
To start, I want you to take a moment to close your eyes and bring to mind your favourite place to unwind, relax and restore. Or, if you don’t have a place that does this for you, imagine your ideal setting to do this. As this scene becomes clearer in your mind’s eye, take note of the elements in this setting, the colours, the sounds, all the little details. Take it all in.
As you do this, notice how you feel in your body and your emotional state. What’s different as you take in this scene? Are you breathing deeper? Are your thoughts slowing down?
Research has shown that, when asked this question, the majority of people imagine a place in a nature. 2 Was this true for you?
Over the past few decades, there has been increasing acknowledgement that humans depend on nature not just for material goods but also for emotional, psychological and spiritual well-being. 2
The research has shown that, even short-term contact with nature can have a significant positive impact on mood. A walk in a park, or simply looking at images of natural settings can reduce anxiety and anger and increase positive feelings. 2
When our brains are over-stimulated, which occurs at different levels for different people, we become less able to emotionally regulate. Stimulating environments, with high levels of visual stimulation, noise, movement, smells, advertisements and people, such as cities, cause physiological and psychological excitement or arousal. 2 While this isn’t necessarily a negative thing, when the level of arousal hits our personal threshold, the part of the brain that is responsible for decision making, emotional regulation, and higher level thinking, becomes fatigued. In other words, the body and mind become stressed and less able to cope.
Natural environments, on the other hand, can decrease this autonomic nervous system arousal (which is our stress response), and activate our parasympathetic nervous system (which is our relaxation response). 2
What I found extremely interesting in doing this research, is that even being exposed to images and sounds of nature can have a calming effect. In one particular study, participants were shown a stress-inducing movie. Afterwards, half of them were shown videoscapes of natural settings and the other half of urban settings. The group that was exposed to natural settings recovered faster and more completely from the stress response than the urban group. 2 Fascinating!
Of interest, studies have also shown that contact with nature can decrease feelings of anger, frustration and aggression, and increase ones’ sense of belonging, acceptance, safety, self-worth, and love. 2
In Japan, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries coined the term “Shinrin-yoku” which literally means “taking in the atmosphere of the forest.”3 Otherwise known as “forest therapy.” The basic activities of Shinrin-yoku are walking in the forest and viewing live forest landscapes. A study conducted between 2005 – 2011 in 48 different forest locations throughout Japan looked at the physiological response in people who walked in or viewed live forest landscapes versus those doing the same in city areas. 4
They found that the level of a key stress hormone, cortisol, as well as blood pressure and heart rate, both indicators of autonomic nervous system activation (the stress response) were significantly decreased when participants were in the forest area, compared with when they were in the city area.4
So, this evidence confirms what most of us already know from experience…that being in nature, or even having nature landscapes on our walls or plants in our home or work, can offer an effective way to calm anxiety, restore our mental capacity, decrease mental fatigue, regroup and unwind. And if you live in an urban area, don’t fret. Urban parks and gardens have also been shown to be effective in stress reduction and improving well-being.
I would also like to suggest that even something as simple as closing your eyes and imagining a calm place in nature, can have a calming effect…especially if you can put your headphones on and find some nature soundscapes on the internet! And it’s something that is always with you.
So I encourage you, when you can, to imagine, look at, or immerse yourself in a natural environment, and feel into the benefits it gives you.
Where is your special place?
- Ousett, P., Nourhashemi, F., Albarede, J., and Vellas, P. (1998). Therapeutic gardens. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, vol. 6, pp. 369-372.
- Townsend, M., and Weerasuriya, R. (2010). Beyond blue to green: the benefits of contact with nature for mental health and well-being. Burwood VIC, Australia: Deakin University Australia. ISBN: 978-0-9581971-6-8
- Park, B-J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Hirano, H., Kagawa, T., Sato, M., and Miyazaki, Y. (2007). Physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the atmosphere of the forest) – using salivary cortisol and cerebral activity as indicators. Journal of Physiological Anthropology, vol. 26, pp. 123-128.
- Lee, J., Li, Q., Tyrvainen, L., Tsunetsugu, Y., Park, B-J., Kagawa, T., and Miyazaki, Y (2012). Nature Therapy and Preventative Medicine. In Prof. Jay Maddock (Ed.), Public Health – Social and Behavioral Health (325-350). In Tech. ISBN: 978-953-51-0620-3.