A 2017 report by the Institute of Health Metrics Evaluation specified 300 million people worldwide are affected by an anxiety disorder. Should we be subscribing nature as a treatment for anxiety?
Humans have linked nature to wellbeing throughout history, for instance, this connection drove the 19th-century urban parks movement in Europe and North America. But to what extent does nature promote a healthy mental disposition?
I’m a business writer for the startup Process Street, but today I write to you as a friend and expose my experience with anxiety to help others. In this article, I explain how nature helps me remain calm, presenting findings that support the notion that nature can relieve anxiety.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling of worry or fear, ranging from mild to severe. It’s a common human emotion that flows in and out of our awareness. For some, however, anxiety lingers causing distress that can impair life quality. It’s under this instance where we categorize an individual as having an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety equipped our ancestors with the vigilance needed to survive. Through activating our fight or flight system, anxiety releases cortisol (stress) hormones, e.g. adrenaline, preparing us for action.
For our ancestors, this action would often define the difference between life or death. Today, stress comes in the form of bills, work performance, relationships, etc. In developed countries, we’re extremely fortunate to have very little that can be classed as a significant life threat.
Despite this, our brains have had little time to catch up, meaning you, me, and everyone else on our planet operate daily in a modern human-centered world, with ancestral mental machinery. It’s for this reason that I propose we go back to our roots, to nature, to ease unwanted feelings of anxiety.
My anxiety story, from cause to treatment
When thinking about a cause for anxiety, we’re talking about multiple bodily and environmental factors working in tandem. What is known, however, is that anxiety doesn’t discriminate.
For instance, growing up, I experienced unsettling levels of anxiety. Searching for a cause, I could point my finger at exam stress, my low socio-economic background, and/or dysfunctional family relations. Or maybe I was simply born with the anxiety gene? Regardless, I needed a solution.
I sought professional help in the form of counseling and medication. I used this in combination with self-help strategies, including exercise and getting outside into nature – which is where I found my solace.
Nature gave perspective to my fears and nine years on remains an important aspect of my life. Getting outside through exercise – aka running, hiking, and rock climbing – has improved my physical and mental health beyond anxiety. It’s given me a means of meeting new people, escapism, adventure, and a purpose.
How does nature treat anxiety?
New research techniques have enabled us to study associations between nature and human wellbeing, with findings indicating that nature supports positive mental dispositions.
One study by Ulrich et al revealed exposure to natural environments activated the parasympathetic nervous system, the system responsible for our body’s resting state. That is, looking at the natural world is enough to trigger key psychological processes for you to feel calmer.
Expanding on this, the cognitive perspective theory argues that, by association, urban environments are tied with work, chores, pollution, and stress. In contrast, natural environments are associated with escapism, adventure, and spending time with family and friends.
Step outside and keep calm
The average American spends seven per cent of their life outdoors. This needs to be addressed when thinking about human wellbeing given the benefits nature brings.
Nature is a vital cog to build human resilience and happiness. So go on, get outside, it’s free.