Have You Had Your Nature-Pill Today?

David Bott

Nature 960x450 

The way we are living our high-tech, hyper-connected, stimulus-rich lives can be very exciting, meaningful, rewarding…and stressful.

Ongoing exposure to highly stimulating environments can take a significant toll on our nervous system, endocrine (hormonal) system, and immune system.

One particular study at Bournemouth University found that, on average, dementias in Western countries are affecting people a decade earlier than they used to in adults. Furthermore, the proportion of deaths caused by brain disease has risen significantly in adults aged over 55 and nearly doubled in adults aged 75 years or older.

In part, these types of findings reflect our relative success in treating diseases of the body, such as cancer and heart disease, compared to neurological illness. But this is only part of the story. Undoubtedly, our modern lifestyle is straining our brains like never before.

For example, the proliferation of social media has provided a wonderful platform for connecting with others – but not without cost. A recent study of Australian women found that frequency of Instagram use is associated with depressive symptoms, lowered self-esteem, anxiety, and body dissatisfaction. And in particular, increased exposure to beauty and fitness images on Instagram significantly decreased self-rated attractiveness.

Another recent University of Pittsburgh study found a significant link between extended periods on social media and depression rates in young adults. The study found that ‘frequent checkers’ were 2.7 times more likely to develop depression than those who checked social media feeds less frequently.

And it’s not just social media that’s to blame. For many of us, in so many ways, the experience of ‘normal life’ is shifting radically. Our world has changed. Our interaction and interface with our world continues to change. It’s not hard to appreciate how, unchecked over time, the frenetic pace and complexity of our lives can have poisonous effect on our wellbeing.

But, we do have a very powerful antidote. Nature.

Research over the last 30 years has demonstrated that connectedness and exposure to nature is linked to a range of mental and physical health benefits including:

  • increased positive emotion, vitality, and life satisfaction;
  • reduced pain and faster hospital recovery;
  • stronger feelings of connectedness with others, greater sense of community, lower levels of violence and aggression, and a better capacity to cope with life’s demands.

However, whilst all of this is great – we are busy. We have students to teach, and families to look after, and meals to cook, and reports to write. How much nature do we actually need?

A new study from researchers at the University of Michigan has helped to answer this question. They found that taking a “nature-pill” involving spending 20 minutes in a “place that brings a sense of contact with nature” was enough to significantly reduce stress hormones in saliva samples. On average, participants who were exposed to between 20 and 30 minutes of nature, had their blood cortisol levels reduced by 18.5%.

Whilst the researchers acknowledge that age, baseline stress level, socioeconomic factors and lifestyle factors all modulate the effect of nature, there is significant potential benefit for all of us.

There are many things that we can do to enhance our wellbeing and help protect us against stress and illbeing. But ultimately, there may be nothing simpler and more broadly effective, efficient, and powerful than a short daily stroll through the park.

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
Lao Tzu, 6th Century Philosopher

David Bott

David Bott is the Associate Director of the Institute of Positive Education. David has been involved in training thousands of teachers from hundreds of schools around the world in designing, implementing and sustaining individual and whole-school approaches to wellbeing.