Vitamin N (nature): A small dose provides substantial stress relief

Vitamin N (nature): A small dose provides substantial stress relief

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By Mandy LeBlanc

A midweek hike through Discovery Park in Seattle recently brought a surprising amount of tranquility to my life – after a short sunset excursion, my family and I found we were far more relaxed and optimistic, slept better and had more perspective on our place in the world.

We had recently returned from a great vacation and had felt relaxed and interconnected, but those feelings only lasted a few weeks until school and work caused stress again. While the short stint in the park brought myriad health benefits to my life, you don’t need a whole evening or even an hour to relieve stress.

For many of us, when we think about relieving our stress and easing our minds, we think about the rejuvenating powers of time in the mountains, at the beach or on a good vacation. While extended breaks from everyday life have their role in managing stress, micro-doses of the outdoors can be just as powerful.

If you are like the majority of Americans, you are concerned about the level of stress in your everyday life. The American Psychology Association’s annual survey on stress consistently finds that most Americans are affected by stress. Think of the last time you were stressed out. What did you do? Sitting still stewing about it rarely solves the problem, but walking away for a minute to refresh your mind and get another perspective can be one solution. The Japanese call this Shinrin-yoku: the medicine of being in the forest.

In a 2010 study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, researchers found that people experienced boosts to their mood and self-esteem after just spending five minutes outside doing light exercise, such as walking
or gardening.

If your smartphone is rarely out of arm’s reach, that means you are making yourself available to the world most of the time. Add social media feeds and 24/7 news, and life rarely allows you to hit pause. Many physicians have started prescribing nature most days of the week to promote the physical and mental health benefits of time spent outdoors.

So while weekend activity is key to training for a big climb, daily walks in natural habitats have a big effect on our mental well-being. Time in nature has been proven to lower cortisol levels and blood pressure and allows us to be more mentally agile. Why?

It is primal: At our core, our predecessors were hunters and gatherers so we were used to being outside. These days, we have become used to being held captive by our technology, which means less time “off the grid.”

Nature provides perspective and a more positive outlook. The next time you are feeling stressed or can’t seem to come up with a solution to a problem, try taking a 15-minute walk to see if you don’t come back feeling more refreshed and with a deeper sense of perspective of your role in the world.

Restored mental energy and improved concentration: Many of us are awake for up to 18 hours a day. A brief walk in nature can revive your mind and hit the reset button. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Attention Disorders found that children with attention deficits concentrate better after a walk in the park.

A more positive outlook: Soothing natural experiences often leave us with a more positive outlook and a sense of hope for the future.

Improved memory: While outside we tend to be focused on the present and give our brain time to defragment. Studies have shown that participants are better at repeating numbers backwards, and other cognitive tasks, after walking through the forest.

So consider this a prescription for Vitamin N and don’t neglect it, even if you can only get a small dose.

Mandy LeBlanc is a consultant who has worked with such groups as the American Heart Association, Swedish Medical Centers and Kaiser Permanente to pilot community engagement programs that improve health outcomes.