The What and Why of Restorative Nature
Today’s society can cause excessive and chronic stress that is unhealthy and shortens lifespans. Communing with nature can be recuperative, reducing stress and promoting health.
What makes nature restorative? We still don’t understand all the reasons nature has such a profound effect, and it may be some time before we do. But, why wait? Immersion in nature is free and there are no real side-effects.
A Primer on Stress
According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress is becoming a public health crisis.
The body’s stress-response system is usually self-limiting. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities.
But when stressors are always present and you constantly feel under attack, that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on.
The long-term activation of the stress-response system — and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones — can disrupt almost all your body’s processes.
Attentional Restoration Theory
What causes the stress reaction to stay elevated in modern man? Attention Restoration Theory is a compelling explanation. In the Kaplans’ view, the theory’s originators, you can divide attention into two categories. Directed attention is involuntary. It happens when we must concentrate, handle distractions or deal with confusing information. In short, these are situations that need high levels of mental energy that often occur over long periods of time. This is an apt description of daily life for many of us.
In contrast, effortless attention is what occurs when we immerse ourselves in nature. Rather than demanding attention, nature can draw us in, effortlessly, through fascination or appreciation. The key point is that these periods of effortless attention seem to give the brain a break.
Rumination is another common situation where the prefrontal cortex gets put into over-drive. Rumination occurs when we persist in thinking about negatives, real or imagined. This a good description of anxiety and even depression. We don’t let go and get all rev’d up.
The Kaplans’ proposed their theory in the mid-90’s. Since then, there has been a growing body of supportive evidence. For example, when we get stressed out, brain scans show that the executive/decisions centers of the brain get highly activated. Exposure to nature reduces this activity.
On one hand, the impact can be both preventative or quickly remedial, the preventative element happens when one makes his/her environment more nature, like with plants that can reduce stress. Remedial can happen quickly, for example, viewing a green roof for forty seconds. In this short time, one’s ability to concentrate and do reasoning tasks improves.
Communing with nature has beneficial effects on both the mind and body. See The Health Benefits of Communing with Nature.
Immersion versus Exposure; Real versus Photographic
Studies have shown that just living near nature has positive health benefits. But they also indicate that the impact is stronger when the person spends more time in nature and, through this communing gains a sense of being part of nature. This notion of “being part of nature” might be a little hard to grasp for some people, a little too philosophical. In my view a more practical sense of immersion comes from sensing nature in the most complete fashion possible – appreciate the visual landscape, smell the essence, feel the wind, put your feet in the water, listen.
How real does in have to be? While a plant on your desk or periodically smelling a lemon have been shown to have restorative benefits, the real McCoy is a more powerful antidote to stress.
So what does one do when the circumstance doesn’t allow for a walk in the park? Research shows that viewing photographs or videos of nature can produce significant restorative effects.
Restorative Nature Videos
Living55Plus has produced a series of videos designed to be restorative. They provide exposure to nature and foster “effortless attention.” But they go a step further through a neuropsychological exercise. Over the five minutes of each video, the mind is likely to wander and that is okay. It sets up the exercise. The exercise is to bring the mind back from where it wandered, to the effortless viewing. The benefit is to strengthen one’s ability concentrate, and inhibit distractions or unwanted thoughts. In this way, viewing these videos is similar to forms of meditation like Kirtan Kriya.
Experience the restorative benefits of nature for yourself by viewing two of our videos. Watch “Introduction to Restorative Nature Videos,” first. It is only three minutes long but will help you get the full benefit of the videos in this series. Then the Yuba River video.
For more information on our Restorative Nature Video Series click here.