Spending just 20 minutes in nature can significantly lower stress hormone levels, researchers said.
The stress-reducing benefits of experiencing nature apply even if you’re simply gardening, doing yardwork, or sitting quietly in the backyard.
The finding, which the researchers call a “nature pill,” comes from a small study published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2019.
The research has special significance now when most United States residents are under stay-at-home orders and people are bombarded with daily updates on the soaring number of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
Here, Mary Carol Hunter, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, explains the research and how you can reduce your stress by getting up and getting outside:
There are physical benefits as well, including exposure to cleaner air and beneficial secondary plant compounds (phytoncides) and health-building microbes, and natural production of vitamin D, an important component of a healthy immune system.
We know that the healing impact of a nature experience doesn’t require a trip to the wilderness or complete immersion in nature. In fact, any place that helps you feel connected to nature will do. The sense of connection with nature can be passive or active. A passive experience is subconscious. It is one of soft fascination, the kind of thing that happens when the mind wanders and you notice the air on your skin, birds calling, and the shape of trees against the sky. An active experience is a conscious interface with some aspect of nature. For example, an “oh, wow” moment when looking at something beautiful, or becoming observant, engaged with the workings of nature—like the way buds open or pollinators interact with a flower.
If you cannot get outdoors, looking through a window at nearby nature will also support mental well-being. Perhaps you can open that window as well, to let in the sounds, the smells, and the touch of nature from the air and sun.
Regardless of outdoor activity, de-stressing and other types of mental restoration happen more readily by gently turning the mind’s focus away from itself. Take a mindfulness approach to noticing the sight, sound, or smell of nature. Use intentional focus on some aspect of nature—anything from the larger landscape to the workings of a tiny element. You could keep track of the change in interesting buds on trees or shrubs near your home, and make a photo set that unfolds the story as buds open. Be creative and find something that is emotionally or intellectually interesting to you—ants that are streaming out of cracks, or the order of flowers opening along a forsythia branch, or changes in the shape of clouds over time, or the early morning soundscape from your front porch.
Saliva samples were analyzed for cortisol, a stress hormone, and used to determine if stress levels had changed by the end of a given nature experience. We found that a nature experience produced a 21.3 percent per hour drop in cortisol levels, with the greatest efficiency (best outcome for time put in) from nature pills lasting 20 to 30 minutes. Thereafter, stress relief continues to build, but at a slower rate. The study provides the first estimates of how urban nature experiences impact stress levels in the context of everyday daily life.