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How To Reduce Stress & Anxiety With Nature Therapies

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Stress is one of the most detrimental lifestyle factors of the modern age. It’s been linked to a host of illnesses and diseases from the common cold to cancer. Micheal M. Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, exposes stress as a silent killer that can make life a misery.


But stress doesn’t just silently smoulder away under the surface slowly eroding your health. Studies have shown that people struggling with stress are more likely to make ‘sub-optimal’ lifestyle choices such as eating junk food or resorting to addictive substances – alcohol, cigarettes, and even drugs.


Yet there are many effective methods available to manage stress. Most of these methods are freely accessible and cost nothing to implement. Typically, they include calming activities such as meditation or reading a book (I recommend Henry David Thoreau's Walden: Or Life In The Woods). Other ways, for those with more energy to invest in fighting stress, involve Yoga or high-intensity interval training.


But what if you’ve tried the above methods and they haven’t helped? After all, our personalities and preferences are markedly different. Thus, we don’t respond in the same way to conventional interventions. Mindfulness meditation might work wonders for me but make matters worse for you. For some, states of silence can actually amplify negative self-talk thus exacerbating stress.


Here’s the important thing though. If you’ve yet to find an intervention that works, that doesn’t mean you should give up. It just means that you can tick it off your ‘tried but doesn’t work’ list.


Perhaps it’s time to try nature therapies

In this article, I am going to introduce you to a new stress management technique. (Actually, it's quite old, but it's currently in vogue and gaining popularity.) Emerging studies are showing that nature therapies can promote wellbeing while reducing stress and anxiety.


In The Nature Fix, Florence Williams reports on the wonderful ‘forest healing programmes’ and ‘ecotherapeutic approaches’ that are being used to treat people with severe mental health problems.


Below, you will discover a diverse range of nature therapies. In addition, I will outline several simple strategies that can help you tap into the healing power of nature.


How nature therapies reduce stress?

Initially, it may come as a surprise to learn that nature can reduce stress. After all, modern humans are far removed from the natural world. According to Dr Qing Li, author of Into The Forest, most of us spend 90% of our entire lives indoors or surrounded by dull, colourless concrete. And what’s worse, we spend up to 8 hours every day looking at screens. Dr Li claims that ‘our increasingly domestic lives are having huge consequences to our health.’


If you’re stressed, anxious, or feeling overwhelmed it might be time to visit the great outdoors. But why?


Researchers in Japan have conducted studies on what they call ‘forest therapies’. Some reported benefits of environmental immersion include reduced anxiety, depression and a general sense of wellness (Sakurai et al - 2017).


The mental, emotional and psychological health benefits of being in nature are such that there is now a burgeoning field of ‘nature therapies’.


Tree therapy

In Japan ‘shinrin-yoku’, or forest bathing, is a form of natural therapy that is used to induce calmness and grow inner tranquility.


Simple and inexpensive though forest bathing is, as is the case with all nature therapies, it confers many positive benefits. For example, there is a growing body of research showing that forest therapies are an effective method of lowering blood pressure, boosting immune function, and reducing stress.


Ecotherapy

According to Mind, the mental health charity, ecotherapy is a 'formal type of therapeutic treatment which involves doing outdoor activities in nature’.


Similar to forest bathing, ecotherapy can bring about a wide range of health benefits. Beyond the obvious benefits of cleaner air and increased blood circulation walking in nature also alleviates muscle tension and regulates the parasympathetic nervous system.


Being in nature reduces stress

Forest therapies aim to use green environments and the natural world to bring about balance and induce a sense of calm. And that they most certainly do.


In times of stress being in nature can help mitigate the uncomfortable feelings that ensue. Occasional exposures can certainly help you unwind at the end of a busy week or particularly stress-inducing event.


However, to really reap the benefits of nature therapy you must practice regularly.


A Harvard Medical School study showed that subjects who walked in nature, compared to subjects who walked in a laboratory, experienced a significant reduction in cortisol levels. This positive outcome was compounded when subjects spent 120 minutes out in nature each week.


To help you establish a routine and maximize the effectiveness of your practice, follow the simple tips below.


Tip #1: How to practice nature therapy

Although any time spent in nature helps to dissipate stress and induce a sense of calm, your practice can be more effective if you follow some basic principles.


Of course, if you are taking a gentle stroll along a quiet country lane, the enjoyment and stress-busting effects will be reduced if you’re responding to emails or texts on your mobile phone.


Also, if you take your stress-inducing trouble into nature with you, and spend your time ruminating over toxic relationships or workplace pressures, again, the therapy won't confer the same range of benefits.


Tip #2: Boundary your nature walks

Identify a time and place when and where you can enjoy the calming effects of nature. It could be a local park, a country lane, or a peaceful patch of forest.


Remember, nice though it would be, you don’t have to be in the Yellow Stone National Park to make the most of nature.


Short walks in the country or green spaces are enough to induce a calming effect.


Tip #3: Make time for nature

As with any stress-management technique, it’s not enough to use it when you’re stressed. That’s like (if you’ll excuse the hackneyed cliché) shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted.


To make the most of nature therapies, with it's ecotherapy or forest bathing, you've got to try and habituate the practice. That is, you need to shuffle your commitments about a bit so that you can accommodate regular visits to natural spaces.


Ideally, you should aim to implement your chosen nature therapy at least once a week. For example, you may decide to enjoy a long country walk every Sunday.


But if your commitments prohibit a long weekly walk, there are plenty of other ways to get out in nature.


Tip #4: A nature therapy practice plan

It’s not enough to go walking through a forest when you feel frustrated with the world. If you’re not careful, you could just take your troubles with you.


The five steps below provide you with a practice plan to follow when you’re out in nature.


Five steps for a perfect forest walk

Step 1: First, to reduce distraction and temptation, turn off devices: purge yourself of technology!

Step 2: Ensure that you wear comfortable clothing and footwear.

Step 3: While walking, practice some mindfulness techniques: focus your attention on your surroundings; strive to hear the myriad wonderful sounds of nature; immerse yourself fully in the present moment.

Step 4: Occasionally bring your attention to your breath: focus on diaphragmic breathing, filling your lunges with fresh air.

Step 5: Concluding your nature therapy, consider documenting your experience in a notebook.


Tip #5: Alter your lifestyle to accommodate green spaces

If possible, change your commute to work so that it incorporates green spaces. Perhaps a portion of your commute could be redirected to incorporate a local park.


Alternatively, if your place of work is situated near a park or green space, spend your lunch breaks immersed in nature. I seized this opportunity recently during a conference.


On the drive to the venue, I noticed there was an arboretum nearby. During the hour intermission, while my peers and contemporaries remained locked up in a windowless lecture theatre with their prepacked ultra-processed lunches, I escaped to what felt like an ancient forest.


Walking in nature did me the world of good. The soft sound of trees swaying listlessly in the breeze. The calming calls of various types of birds. The gentle exercise and cool, crisp air. I returned feeling rejuvenated and revitalised – even ready for another three hours of presentations.


Tip #6: Enjoy nature with others

Walking groups are becoming increasingly popular. People have cottoned on to the dual pleasure of being out in nature with like-minded companions.


This is a powerful technique both to reduce stress and improve consistency. According to the authors of The New Health Psychology, socialising is one of the most potent weapons against stress, illness, and disease. Truly, there are few more effective ways to lighten the burden of stress than confiding in a friend.


Coupled with a pleasant walk in the woods or along a country canal path, you’ll noticeably feel the crushing weight of stress dissipate.


 

Conclusion

As this article has endeavoured to show, nature therapies are a proven method of promoting positive wellbeing. The studies that we reviewed demonstrate that being out in green spaces can reduce anxiety and alleviate stress while reinvigorating and rejuvenating the body, mind, and spirit.


This only scratches the surface. Leading scholars in the field are unearthing a wealth of health benefits from enhanced immune response to a decrease in clinical depression.


But forest bathing and solitary country walks do more than soothe our harried souls. Regularly immersing ourselves in nature cultivates an awareness of the wonder that is the natural world. This brings about a deeper appreciation of the intrinsic value of the Earth’s ecological systems and the imperative role they play in preserving life.


 

About Dr. Laura Allen –

A Chartered Psychologist & Integrative Therapist, Dr. Allen specialises in a broad range of therapeutic methods. She is a published author of numerous research papers in the field of Positive Psychology. Dr. Allen works one-to-one with clients and supervises other practitioners. She is also a proud member of the British Psychological Society assessment team supporting psychologists in training.


 

References

Bremner J. D. (2007). Neuroimaging in posttraumatic stress disorder and other stress-related disorders. Neuroimaging clinics of North America17(4), 523–ix. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nic.2007.07.003

Sakurai R, Suzuki H, Fujiwara Y, Yasunaga M, Takeuchi R, Murayama Y, Cuya KEK, Kanosue K, Ishii K. Neural basis for the relationship between frequency of going outdoors and depressive mood in older adults. Int J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2017 Jun;32(6):589-595. doi: 10.1002/gps.4497. Epub 2016 May 9. PMID: 27162102.

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