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Op-Ed: Contact with nature really does reduce stress

If you’re looking for stress management options, this might be the easiest, simplest, and cheapest of all. Researchers at the University of Michigan have conducted a study using flexible parameters to finally pin down the real stress relief effects of “connecting with nature”.
The study showed that a mere 20-30 minutes in a space that provides a “sense of nature” was enough to reduce cortisol (the major stress hormone) levels efficiently. Study participants were required to take their “nature pill” for at least 10 minutes, 3 times a week, for 8 weeks.
One of the reasons for this study is the clear range of indicators that the modern world is basically a stress factory. Urbanization, the exact opposite of a natural environment, doesn’t help. Nor do endless hours in front of a screen. It’s anyone’s guess what the equally interminable supply of fake news and hideous global events does, but obviously it’s not good, and literally unhealthy in many ways. The overall human environment is a major stress producer.
Equally to the point – Stress is a major factor in many conditions, notably depression, anxiety, blood pressure, and similar potentially critical medical conditions. Learning how to measure stress, manage it, and beat it are central to many management scenarios. This research may have just added a few more practical options.
Study leader Associate Professor Dr. MaryCarol Hunter states that the study was based on a very flexible format. Participants could choose when and where to take their nature pill.
Constraints were:
No aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise also reduces stress and could therefore have affected the outcomes of the study.
No internet, phone, conversations, reading, or social media. Social media is a potential aggravator of stress above normal levels. The other factors could introduce random elements in to the overall assessment of stress levels.
Cortisol levels were measured using saliva samples before and after the nature experiences. The readings consistently showed reduced levels of cortisol after these nature experiences.
Hunter states that this research has proven its general effectiveness as a methodology for research in to stress levels factoring in gender, culture, and other more esoteric parameters.
Deeper factors?
“Getting away from it all” is such an old expression it is instantly understood and acknowledged. It’s obvious. The archetypal getaway is, in fact, a natural environment. No traffic, no noisy environments, no risky people. What’s new about this study is that it actually pins down the effects so clearly.
Work and social environments are stressful, and they do have an impact on health. Insecure social environments, in particular, are constant sources of stress. Insecurity is an insidious overarching condition which essentially aggravates itself. When stressed, more stress also amplifies the effects of existing stress. Health effects can be truly severe.
Stress management as a science hasn’t been quite enough. Lifestyle management and the many theories of how to reduce stress are often complex. Stressed people don’t necessarily relate well to complex things. A simple, effective, reliable approach to stress relief is an obvious necessity.
Stress is very much a part of human history. The old generic nervous breakdowns of the past were almost certainly stress crisis events, just not well defined. If the causes were obvious or not, there were few if any clear therapeutic and systemic responses.
Not much has changed, in far too many ways. Now, even the theory that medication solves stress is under heavy criticism. The criticism is largely based on its obviously inconsistent, hit-or-miss effects or lack of effects in many cases.
A medication doesn’t physically remove you from the stress environment. Quite the opposite; the medication is taken while in the environment that’s causing the stress. As “aspirin for the soul”, many psychiatrists have been saying for decades that medication isn’t the answer, just a sort of localized pain killer with varying levels of efficacy.
Individual stress study potentials
What is a normal level of stress? Not an easy question to ask, let alone answer. I remember doing a stress test years ago. I got a score of well over 600 on the test. The test results said that if my score was over 250, I should look at lifestyle changes. The joke was that I couldn’t even include a lot of significant stress factors.
Scalable metrics for the effects of stress are better based on things like cortisol levels, for sure, particularly on the individual level. Some people do handle stress well. Some can’t handle it at all. Cortisol measurement attaches a verifiable measure to what may be a highly complex range of stresses.
That said – This research is far more significant than that. The ability to “audit” stress may be a very high value approach to dealing with severe stress and matching stress to physical and mental effects. The ability to also factor in an instant relief is another major plus.
Meanwhile – Get away from your stress environment with a walk in a nice natural environment. A garden, a favourite place, wherever you can feel the stress reducing.
Now, if somebody would also just lose this idiotic high stress environment, preferably permanently…

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Editor-at-Large based in Sydney, Australia.

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