In a year that has been universally stressful and restrictive due to the global pandemic, handling ongoing pressures and uncertainty has called for some creative solutions. A poll conducted by YouGov on behalf of Healthy Minds Innovations found that in order to maintain well-being, US workers are exploring a wide range of coping strategies including mindset changes (“focusing on what is in my control”), exploring spirituality, adopting meditation or mindfulness practices, reassessing goals and priorities, and seeking social support. However, according to 49% of respondents, the most popular strategy for coping with stress was spending time outdoors. Accordingly, visitations to state parks this past summer and fall have reached record highs.
That an increasingly stressed out populace is seeking out the great outdoors, particularly after being cooped up during the early shutdowns, is no surprise. Research shows that there are numerous benefits to spending time in nature, including helping people feel calmer, reducing rumination of negative thoughts, slowing the cumulative physical breakdown of our bodies due to chronic stress, and boosting overall health and well-being.
The benefits of spending time in nature can, in part, be attributed to biophilia, or our innate affinity to nature. Popularized in 1984 by Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard conservationist, the biophilia hypothesis suggests that people have an “urge to affiliate with other forms of life”. This explains why we find the sounds of a stream or a crackling fire soothing, prefer rooms with plenty of natural light, tend plants in our homes, and feel mentally restored while walking or hiking in nature.
The effects of biophilia are quite tangible. For example, having a view of nature can reduce recovery time after surgery, and walking outside can improve focus and memory. Psychologically, interacting with nature can have similar effects as meditation, in that we are able to immerse in our present surroundings without feeling as mentally taxed as we might in a busy and overstimulating urban environment. Redirecting attention in this way can help us recoup our cognitive resources when we’re mentally fatigued.
But what happens when we can’t go outside? In the northern climates, as the cold weather relegates us to staying indoors, we face a growing dread at the thought of losing one of our coping strategies for the unrelenting stress and fatigue of 2020.
While we do continue to reap the mental health benefits of outdoor walks even when it’s cold outside, most of us can only peacefully withstand the cold for a short amount of time till our focus turns from on our surroundings and onto our increasingly numb limbs! Luckily, we can supplement shorter outdoor walks by bringing nature indoors. Researchers have found that looking at pictures of natural scenes is similarly restorative. Additionally, interacting with plants indoors reduces stress and access to sunlight and natural elements in a room reduces anxiety and depressed mood, while increasing satisfaction with our environment and performance. Interestingly, the beneficial effects of nature are not limited to what we can see. Even listening to the sounds of nature can help us recover faster from stressful situations, and these effects may be enhanced when natural sounds are accompanied by visuals.
Establishing natural elements indoors benefits us in a similar way as when we’re on a nature walk outside. Our overstimulated and overtaxed brains get a much needed respite when we redirect our attention to objects and sounds that are enjoyable to us on an evolutionary level. In addition, new, dynamic natural environments (whether real, virtual, video, or sound-based) introduce novelty into our lives, which in itself can increase happiness and improve cognition.
So don’t let the cold weather give you the blues. As you prepare for an extended stay indoors, think about the different ways you can introduce nature into your home to help reduce stress. Visit your local nursery or collect some plant cuttings, set up a screensaver or buy some art depicting beautiful vistas, mountains or waterfalls, or download an app that curates biophilic soundscapes to enjoy the healing sounds of nature from the comfort of your home. Most importantly, find time each day to relax and enjoy the environment you create!
Edited by: Sara Aristizabal, Ph.D, Radhika Singh and Regina Vaicekonyte, MPH