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Reducing Anxiety Through Nature

Reducing Anxiety Through Nature

Sherry has taken her upbringing in rural Saskatchewan, together with a career in public health, to the "natural" conclusion that time in nature is good for us, physically, emotionally and socially.

Is “fight or flight” a friend or foe?

For millennia, the biological 'fight or flight' reaction has served to protect members of the animal kingdom from harm. It kicks in when there is potential danger; for example, when a rabbit senses a fox.  There is an autonomic cascade of reactions that is activated in the amygdala in the brain.  In turn, it signals the hypothalamus which launches a series of reactions of the sympathetic nervous system.  Adrenaline floods the body causing increased heart rate and respiration.  Glucose goes to the muscles for instant energy; senses are heightened to hear, see and smell danger.  If the threat continues, additional hormones are released, including cortisol, to sustain the stress reaction for longer periods of time[i]. This physiological response enables the "fight"- the buffalo charges the wolf, the blue jay attacks the owl, the mother bear protects her cubs.  In some species it enables the 'flight'- the slap and swim of the beaver, the skittishness of songbirds, the sudden dive of a frog. Quick response to danger is vital to survival of the organism, and ultimately of the species.

The Human Experience

Humans also experience this biological phenomenon when we are stressed. Nowadays, the stress is seldom related to a predator's attack, but we do experience a stress response to difficult life events as well as day to day challenges.  We feel our heart pound, our breathing quicken, our muscles tense, our gut clench. This response helps us respond to emergencies and extract ourselves from uncomfortable situations.  Mild stress can be positive; it heightens our senses, motivates us and improves performance. But what happens when our body stays in a persistent stress response?  We become overly anxious, worried, tense, tired and even depressed.  We experience panic attacks without provocation.  Chronic stress with elevated hormones is hard on our blood vessels and cardiovascular system; it increases the appetite leading to weight gain[ii]. If it reaches a level where it interferes with daily living it can become a clinical anxiety disorder:  phobias, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety, post traumatic stress syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder[iii].  According to Statistics Canada 8.6% of Canadians have a diagnosed anxiety disorder[iv].

The Effects of Time In Nature

Time in nature can directly counteract some of the physiological and psychological effects of anxiety.  Research is showing that for healthy individuals time in greenspace contributes to mental health; for those with diagnosed mental illness, including anxiety disorders, time in nature can be an effective component of treatment[v]. Spending time in, or even passively viewing, greenspace, has beneficial psychophysiological effects[vi] by lowering blood pressure, muscle tension, and heart rate.  Cortisol is lower in people when they are in nature.  The Attention Restoration effect reduces some of the mental fatigue of being in protracted fight or flight mode.  Time in nature decreases rumination, which is the persistent recurrence of unwanted negative thoughts[vii].  The affiliated effects of time in nature, in particular increased physical activity and increased social connectedness, in and of themselves, are beneficial in reducing stress and anxiety[viii].

Getting nature in your day

With the hectic holiday period soon upon us, let all of us ensure that we build time in nature into our daily routines.  Walk through the park on the way to work, watch the birds at the feeder for a few extra minutes, get out on the snowshoes in the woods.  Use a natural scene as your computer screensaver, put up some photographs from your camping trip, get some plants or fresh cut flowers for the house, start a nature journal to record thoughts, observations, doodles and poetry. There is some irony that nature where generations of humans experienced “fight or flight” is now our respite from stress. The natural world is balm for the senses; even in the winter, the smell of balsam, the fresh cold on the face, the sound of running water, the serenity of snow covered trees can help us de-stress and calm the anxious mind. Wishing you all time in nature, and may it bring you peace and good health in 2019! Sherry, RN BSN
[i] Harvard Medical School.  Understanding the stress response.  Downloaded on November 8, 2018 from [ii] ibid [iii] Canadian Mental Health Association.  Anxiety Disorders.  Downloaded November 9, 2018 from [iv] Statistics Canada.  2017. Mental Health Disorders and Life Satisfaction in Canada. Downloaded on November 8, 2018 from [v] National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health. 2015. Summary:  Review of Green Space and Mental Health.  Downloaded October 2016 from [vi] Beyer, K. M. M., Kaltenbach, A., Szabo, A., Bogar, S., Nieto, F. J., & Malecki, K. M. (2014). Exposure to Neighborhood Green Space and Mental Health: Evidence from the Survey of the Health of Wisconsin . International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 11(3), 3453–3472  Downloaded November 8, 2018 from [vii] Bratman et al. 2015.  Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation.  Downloaded May 3, 2018 from!po=8.62069 [viii] National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health. 2015. Summary:  Review of Green Space and Mental Health.  Downloaded October 2016 from

Squirrel! Can nature reduce the symptoms of ADHD?

Squirrel! Can nature reduce the symptoms of ADHD?

[caption id="attachment_38322" align="alignleft" width="150"] Sherry Nigro[/caption] This blog post was written by Nature Canada guest blogger Sherry Nigro, and is the second in a series of blogs on the effect of nature on mental health. “Squirrel”. Anyone who has a dog knows that this single word will immediately distract them from whatever they were doing.  In fact, a lot of people find that they too, can be easily distracted, impulsive and inattentive, especially if they are tired or stressed.  The consequences can negatively affect academic and job performance, health and safety as well as relationships with others.  For approximately 5% of children and 4% of adults (conservative measures) these are symptoms of a neurodevelopmental illness called attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)[i]. Did you know that time in natural environments can help reduce inattentiveness and improve concentration?

How does it work

Much has been written about the attention restoration affect that time in nature has, since the theory was proposed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in the 1980s. It recognizes that periods of extended concentration (such as working on math problems), over stimulation (for example, urban environments) and even under stimulation, are draining and lead to mental fatigue, which in turn can make one easily distracted and unable to focus on the task at hand. In sharp contrast, being in a natural environment requires no intellectual effort, but provides a wrap-around multi-sensory experience.  And most significant, people feel a sense of awe, of being deeply engaged, of being fascinated by the surroundings, that has the most restorative effect.  Who among us has not looked up into a tree canopy with its dancing shades of green, or been mesmerized by water spilling over rocks, or watched a hardworking ant carry a trophy much bigger than itself, and not felt moved? And in turn, refreshed. Subsequent researchers have validated the findings that time in nature can improve attention as noted in a systematic review by Ohly et al, published by the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health[ii]. In addition to short term emotional effects that restore attention and focus, long term exposure to nature can affect brain development in children.  In research published earlier this year, Dadvand et al found that children who lived in urban neighbourhoods with "surrounding greenness" had larger volumes of grey and white matter and also showed better working memory and reduced inattention in cognitive testing[iii].

Reducing the symptoms of ADHD

People with ADHD may show behaviours such as daydreaming, being easily distracted from tasks, talking excessively, interrupting others, being unable to sit still, poor attention to detail and difficulty with multitasking[iv]. The burden is significant at a human and social level with estimates suggesting the cost of ADHD in Canada is 7 billion dollars per year[v]. So not surprisingly, researchers have looked at whether time in nature could improve the symptoms of ADHD. Frances Kuo and Andrea Faber Taylor published strong evidence in the American Journal of Public Health that demonstrated symptoms in children improved, even controlling for residential and individual variables[vi].  Recently, the Lawson Foundation, a philanthropic organization to support the wellbeing of children,  commissioned two systematic literature reviews, one[vii] by the Human Environments Analysis Lab at Western University (lead investigator Dr. Jason Gilliland, child health geographer), and the other by Dr. Robert Gifford, an environmental psychologist, and Dr. Angela Chen at the University of Victoria[viii] which supported the findings that time in nature improved symptoms of ADHD.  (Note that this is complementary to other treatment options such as medication and cognitive therapy).

Applying this to the real world 

It appears that time in nature can be restorative for children and adults, for those with ADHD and those who feel mentally fatigued.  This resonates for me; how many times has a walk in the woods provided clarity of thinking, better focus, and enhanced problem solving?  But a walk, while a great first step is not the only way to add greenness to our lives. This is the fun part.  Let your imagination go wild (many people with ADHD are highly creative, spontaneous, and energetic) as you consider ways to incorporate nature in your day.  Consider active transportation through a park, use natural scenes for wall coverings, take a picnic down to the beach.  Consider the greenness of the neighbourhood when finding a new home.  Schools, universities and workplaces can work to “naturalize” their properties with trees and water.  Green walls (with plants, not paint), and rooftop gardens are also ways to reduce mental fatigue through exposure to nature.  Why not share your ideas? So whether you are trying to make sure your hyperactive 10 year old adjusts to a new school, you are preparing for an exam, or had a heavy few days at work, spend some time to watch the clouds, be amazed by the texture of tree bark, and enjoy the antics of the industrious squirrel in the nearby tree.
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[i] Centre for ADHD Awareness, Canada (CADDAC). Understanding ADHD- ADHD Facts- Dispelling the Myths.  Downloaded July 20, 2018 from [ii] Heather Ohly, Mathew P. White, Benedict W. Wheeler, Alison Bethel, Obioha C. Ukoumunne, Vasilis Nikolaou & Ruth Garside (2016) Attention Restoration Theory: A systematic review of the attention restoration potential of exposure to natural environments, Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B, 19:7, 305-343, DOI: 10.1080/10937404.2016.1196155 [iii] Dadvand et al. 2018. The Association between Lifelong Greenspace Exposure and 3-Dimensional Brain Magnetic Resonance Imaging in Barcelona Schoolchildren. Environmental Health Perspectives.  Downloaded from [iv] CADDAC. Understanding ADHD>In General> Symptoms. Downloaded July 20, 2018 [v] CADDAC. Understanding ADHD>In General>Socioeconomic Costs.  Downloaded July 20, 2018 from [vi]  Kuo, Frances E., Faber Taylor, Andrea.  2004.  A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention-Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder:  Evidence from a National Study.  American Journal of Public Health.  2004 September: 94(9): 1580-1586.  Downloaded July 10, 2018 from [vii] Human Environments Analysis Laboratory. (nd) Children and Nature:  A systematic review.  Downloaded on July 10, 2018 from [viii] Gifford, R., Chen, A.  2016.  Children and Nature:  What We Know and What We Do Not.  Downloaded on July 10, 2018 from

Watching Birds near your Home is Good for your Mental Health

Watching Birds near your Home is Good for your Mental Health

This post was written by Dr. Daniel Cox, from the University of Exeter. The original article can be found here. People living in neighbourhoods with more birds, shrubs and trees are less likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and stress, according to research by academics at the University of Exeter, the British Trust for Ornithology and the University of Queensland. The study, involving hundreds of people, found benefits for mental health of being able to see birds, shrubs and trees around the home, whether people lived in urban or more leafy suburban neighbourhoods. The study, which surveyed mental health in over 270 people from different ages, incomes and ethnicities, also found that those who spent less time out of doors than usual in the previous week were more likely to report they were anxious or depressed. After conducting extensive surveys of the number of birds in the morning and afternoon in Milton Keynes, Bedford and Luton, the study found that lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress were associated with the number of birds people could see in the afternoon. The academics studied afternoon bird numbers - which tend to be lower than birds generally seen in the morning – because they are more in keeping with the number of birds that people are likely to see in their neighbourhood on a daily basis. [caption id="attachment_37370" align="alignnone" width="1024"] A beautiful Bluebird, photo by Suzanne Swayze.[/caption] In the study, common types of birds including blackbirds, robins, blue tits and crows were seen. But the study did not find a relationship between the species of birds and mental health, but rather the number of birds they could see from their windows, in the garden or in their neighbourhood. Previous studies have found that the ability of most people to identify different species is low (eg Dallimer et al, 2012), suggesting that for most people it is interacting with birds, not just specific birds, that provides well-being. University of Exeter research fellow Dr Daniel Cox, who led the study, said:
"This study starts to unpick the role that some key components of nature play for our mental well-being".
Birds around the home, and nature in general, show great promise in preventative health care, making cities healthier, happier places to live". The positive association between birds, shrubs and trees and better mental health applied, even after controlling for variation in neighbourhood deprivation, household income, age and a wide range of other socio-demographic factors. Recent research by Dr Cox and Professor Kevin Gaston, who are based at the Environmental Sustainability Institute at the Penryn Campus at the University of Exeter, found that watching birds makes people feel relaxed and connected to nature (Cox and Gaston, 2016). The research is published in the journal Bioscience and was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council as conducted as part of the Fragments, Functions, Flows and Ecosystem Services project.
Sources Dr Daniel Cox, of the University of Exeter: Watching birds near your home is good for your mental health.

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