As we examine how to better take care of ourselves and health, there are numerous different options available to all of us. To pick what is the best or most effective can be a bit difficult as there are several variables involved in most health and lifestyle choices. What makes nature therapy a wonderful solution to improve stress recovery and reduce stress is that there are very limited downsides to its use.
The whole “get outside for some fresh air” thing is not just something that people have been saying for years. There’s actual scientific evidence that shows how exposure to scenes of nature can be a great way to take care of your health.
It’s also quite interesting because you don’t have to physically be IN nature to experience the benefits OF nature. That being said, there’s no replacement for genuine nature therapy as there are other things that make being outside a great choice. The reason we’re noting that you don’t have to physically be outside is so there’s no confusion about how all-encompassing nature therapy is. Aside from an extremely minute percentage of the population, this is a technique that can work for everyone.
Before we dive into exactly what makes visual images of trees and nature great for your health and stress recovery or reduction, we need to look into what takes place during a normal stress response. There is a complex web through which our bodies calculate and respond to stress. This system is called the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response and it has quite the job to do while keeping us safe and all threats in check.
As humans have developed, the traditional stress model has stayed basically the same while the causes of stress have not. This is a problem over time because where there used to be physical threats everywhere in the lives of humans, now many threats are emotional and intellectually related. Certain aspects of the NEM Stress Response such as increased heart rate, elevated blood sugar levels, and anti-inflammatory reactions are perfect for running from a threat in the wild but can be very damaging if activated continually because of emotional triggers.
The things that trigger the NEM Stress Response could be issues with a relationship or problems with work. It could even be stress over money. The important thing to be aware of is that regardless of where your stress is coming from, the physical response that you’re experiencing is the same as if there were a physical threat.
If you have a normal amount of stress in your life, there won’t be many long term adverse effects of a triggered stress response but if you have chronic stress, there will ultimately be consequences for your health.
This brings us to the first example of nature therapy which helps to reduce stress and recover from stress. There was a study at the University of Illinois headed by Bin Jiang and his fellow colleagues which set out to discover what the effects of visualizing trees had on stress recovery. What they found was astounding. There is a relationship with between the percentages of how much tree coverage is present to the levels of cortisol in the blood.
This is groundbreaking information and is based solely on how much nature is seen, not related to sunlight or other variables. Now that we’ve touched on the basics of the study, we can dig a little deeper into what is located in the numbers to discover how meaningful the findings are.
We’ve talked a bit about how there have been findings to support the claim that nature therapy can reduce stress levels. Let’s see how much cortisol is reduced and for what percentage of the study group. For the 160 subjects in the study, each were given different control measurements of their stress levels and recovery during different stages of the process.
What the researchers found was that there was a bell-shaped response curve to the natural images that showed how there was an ideal amount of tree cover for stress response. When there was hardly any tree cover (two percent) there was almost no difference in stress recovery. However, when the canopy cover was increased to about 24 percent there was a marked improvement in the stress recovery markers for men involved in the study, specifically in cortisol saliva tests and skin conductance levels.
Though there wasn’t a large difference in the cortisol levels of women during the trials, they did show on their self-reports that they felt calming effects associated with the images. The final numbers of the study showed that the group as a whole, regardless of gender, had a 41 percent success with calming effects to the minimal level of exposure to canopy levels.
Correspondingly, there was a 90 percent positive feedback throughout the group regarding the calming benefits of the images when the canopy percentage was increased to above 36 percent.
Nature therapy might be a newer concept among the medical community as far as the consideration for actual stress recovery is concerned but that doesn’t mean that it is without merit. If there is a way to reduce the levels of cortisol in your body after you experience a stressful situation and the method is simply to look at trees, it’s worth a try.
One of the interesting things about this study was that it didn’t take place in nature at all; these were simply images of trees that people were looking at. Whether or not there are added benefits of actually going out into nature for stress reduction on a visual level is not determined by this study – but it is a point of interest for the future.
Even though there wasn’t a marked reduction of cortisol in women during the study, there were other calming effects reported which ultimately implies that there was a quicker stress recovery. When you have a quicker stress recovery, you will experience a reduction in blood cortisol levels. This is important for a variety of health reasons on a physical and mental level.
When you think about cortisol in the realm of stress, you have to look at what it does to the body on several different levels. Initially, cortisol will give you an energy spike but this only lasts for a little while and only works properly if you have a healthy stress response. What often takes place is that people who suffer from chronic stress don’t have the capability to produce enough cortisol to keep up with the demand that’s required. This inevitably results in an affliction called Adrenal Fatigue (AF).
AF is often associated with numerous other issues that are brought on by elevated cortisol levels which culminate in a negative overall health environment in the body. The issues that you’ll experience can range from anxiety and insomnia to exhaustion and brain fog. It’s important to keep your cortisol levels in check so that you can reduce the frequency of AF and even enter into a stage of recovery.
Aside from what elevated cortisol levels do to affect how you feel, it often has other damaging effects. High blood-sugar levels because of elevated cortisol output can lead as a risk factor for diabetes. In kind, the halt of cholesterol absorption will raise the blood cholesterol levels and act as a risk factor for cardiovascular issues. Because of the severity of how cortisol damages the body in these examples, it’s a good idea for anyone who has high stress levels or AF to consider nature therapy as a method of stress reduction.
It’s important to note that even though nature therapy is a good way to lower cortisol levels and affect positive health change, there are several other methods and this might not be best for you. There are always individuals who have special circumstances where they need to use different methods of action against their AF or stress. It will usually not be a single thing you implement that rids you of AF and we encourage a complete mind-body approach that will allow you to attack the issue from different angles.
Thinking about how you can implement a little nature therapy into your routine will really open you up to other benefits of the outdoors. This is assuming that you don’t have any issues which prevent you from going outside. If that’s the case, see above where we talked about the benefits of images to reduce your stress. For those readers who are able get back to the great outdoors, get your ideas going because there are many reasons for going outside.
The first and probably most obvious reason to go outside is for vitamin D exposure. There are many people who suffer from things like seasonal affective disorder and vitamin deficiencies (particularly vitamin D). Weather permitting, you can get outside and get into the sun to get your adequate levels of vitamin D and lead yourself right to the next benefit of getting outside – exercise.
If you’re suffering from AF and high stress levels, light exercise (like taking a walk outside) may have several wonderful aspects that could help your AF recovery. You will get more vitamin D, get some light exercise to lower cortisol levels, and you will hopefully see some trees and plants which will give you a calming effect.
That’s is what nature therapy is all about, showing you the multifaceted ways that you can help yourself recover from stress and take a bit of time for yourself.
This gives us all the more reason to protect what nature we do have and think about incorporating it into our lives. Bringing in some house plants and getting outside more are two great steps towards helping yourself recover with limited energy. Taking away the other benefits of nature leaves you with a relatively effortless method to decrease stress; just take a look outside at a genuinely natural environment and you’ll likely receive some good benefit that you can take away.
It’s difficult to find things that are not great in regards to nature therapy and it is shown to be a great method of stress recovery as well as stress reduction. If there’s something that covers both ends of the spectrum of stress the way that nature therapy does, you’ll have a difficult time making excuses to avoid giving it a try.
Some people will have to take precautions if they have allergies or physical limitations when it comes to going outside but there is almost no conceivable reason why you can’t take the time to view nature from a window or in passing. Taking the time to take care of yourself? is important for anyone who has high stress and AF. You won’t be able to take care of the things in your life if you aren’t in a good position regarding your own health.
There are a few different ways to step back and consider some small things you can do to reduce your cortisol levels and help yourself recover better from stress. Make some changes to your routine, get outside, and start taking an active role to combat your stress as well as caring for your health in general.
It’s something we all need to do and a bit of encouragement can go a long way. There’s a lot of power within every person to take charge and make a change, you just have to do it and you can recover from adrenal fatigue.
© Copyright 2017 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
During the study that we wrote about in this article, they exposed the subjects to approximately 6 minutes of visual nature therapy. That means that you really don’t need much time to really take advantage of everything that can be gained from using nature to recover from stress.