Stress & Nature: How Getting Outside Impacts Your Mental Health

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Findings from a new study could see doctors prescribe patients with a ‘nature pill’ to reduce stress – and we’re all about it.

The study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, measured participant’s stress response to nature revealing that just 20 minutes of contact with nature will lower stress hormone levels. It’s the first research of its kind to establish an effective dose of an urban nature experience, allowing doctors and other healthcare practitioners to be able to prescribe time spent outside – or ‘nature pills’ – on an evidentiary basis.

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“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,” says Dr Mary Carol Hunter, an associate professor at the University of Michigan and lead author of this research.

Nature WILL nurture

“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.”

Over an eight-week period, participants in the study were asked to spend 10 minutes or more in nature at least three times a week. Their levels of the stress hormone cortisol were measured from saliva samples taken before and after their ‘nature pill’, once every two weeks. They were free to choose the time of day, duration and place of their nature experience, and the only constraints were to make sure they were outside during daylight hours, performed no aerobic exercise, and avoided social media, internet, phone calls, conversations and reading while taking their ‘nature pill’.

Getting Outside Can Help Anxiety

Health professionals are prescribing a ‘nature pill’ for anxiety and stress / Free People 

Make friends with Mother Nature

The verdict? Spending time in nature actually reduces stress and anxiety and the best part is it doesn’t need to be much! The data showed that most of the benefits come at just 20 minutes spent outdoors. A short walk or sitting outside for 20 minutes significantly reduce cortisol levels, but after that it showed a decrease in cortisol levels at their greatest rate. After that, additional de-stressing benefits continued to add up but at a slower rate.

“Healthcare practitioners can use our results as an evidence-based rule of thumb on what to put in a nature-pill prescription,” says Dr Hunter. “It provides the first estimates of how nature experiences impact stress levels in the context of normal daily life. It breaks new ground by addressing some of the complexities of measuring an effective nature dose.”

So, next time a sour mood is getting you down take 20 to sit outside, listen to the birds sing and appreciate Mother Nature’s beauty.

Main image: Unsplash

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