Just 20 Minutes in Nature Reduces Stress Levels

A good prescription for a stressed out society.

Taking at least twenty minutes out of your day to stroll or sit in a place that makes you feel in contact with nature will significantly lower your stress hormone levels. That’s the finding of a study that has established for the first time the most effective dose of an urban nature experience. Healthcare practitioners can use this discovery, published in Frontiers in Psychology, to prescribe ‘nature-pills’ in the knowledge that they have a real measurable effect.

“We know that spending time in nature reduces stress, but until now it was unclear how much is enough, how often to do it, or even what kind of nature experience will benefit us,” says Dr. MaryCarol Hunter, an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan and lead author of this research. “Our study shows that for the greatest payoff, in terms of efficiently lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, you should spend 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking in a place that provides you with a sense of nature.”

A free and natural stress-relieving remedy

Nature pills could be a low-cost solution to reduce the negative health impacts stemming from growing urbanization and indoor lifestyles dominated by screen viewing. To assist healthcare practitioners looking for evidence-based guidelines on what exactly to dispense, Hunter and her colleagues designed an experiment that would give a realistic estimate of an effective dose.

Over an 8-week period, participants were asked to take a nature pill with a duration of 10 minutes or more, at least 3 times a week. Levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, were measured from saliva samples taken before and after a nature pill, once every two weeks.

“Participants were free to choose the time of day, duration, and the place of their nature experience, which was defined as anywhere outside that in the opinion of the participant, made them feel like they’ve interacted with nature. There were a few constraints to minimize factors known to influence stress: take the nature pill in daylight, no aerobic exercise, and avoid the use of social media, internet, phone calls, conversations and reading,” Hunter explains.

She continues, “Building personal flexibility into the experiment, allowed us to identify the optimal duration of a nature pill, no matter when or where it is taken, and under the normal circumstances of modern life, with its unpredictability and hectic scheduling.”

To make allowances for busy lifestyles, while also providing meaningful results, the experimental design was novel in other aspects too.

“We accommodated day to day differences in a participant’s stress status by collecting four snapshots of cortisol change due to a nature pill,” says Hunter. “It also allowed us to identify and account for the impact of the ongoing, natural drop in cortisol level as the day goes on, making the estimate of effective duration more reliable.”

Nature will nurture

The data revealed that just a twenty-minute nature experience was enough to significantly reduce cortisol levels. But if you spent a little more time immersed in a nature experience, 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking, cortisol levels dropped at their greatest rate. After that, additional de-stressing benefits continue to add up but at a slower rate.

“Healthcare practitioners can use our results as an evidence-based rule of thumb on what to put in a nature-pill prescription,” says Hunter. “It provides the first estimates of how nature experiences impact stress levels in the context of normal daily life. It breaks new ground by addressing some of the complexities of measuring an effective nature dose.”

Hunter hopes this study will form the basis of further research in this area.

“Our experimental approach can be used as a tool to assess how age, gender, seasonality, physical ability and culture influences the effectiveness of nature experiences on well-being. This will allow customized nature pill prescriptions, as well as a deeper insight on how to design cities and wellbeing programs for the public.”

Advertisements

Mental Health Disorders Have Increased Significantly Among Teens and Young Adults

Mental health issues are one of the defining problems of this era.

The percentage of young Americans experiencing certain types of mental health disorders has risen significantly over the past decade, with no corresponding increase in older adults, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

“More U.S. adolescents and young adults in the late 2010s, versus the mid-2000s, experienced serious psychological distress, major depression or suicidal thoughts, and more attempted suicide,” said lead author Jean Twenge, PhD, author of the book “iGen” and professor of psychology at San Diego State University. “These trends are weak or non-existent among adults 26 years and over, suggesting a generational shift in mood disorders instead of an overall increase across all ages.”

The research was published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Twenge and her co-authors analyzed data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a nationally representative survey that has tracked drug and alcohol use, mental health and other health-related issues in individuals age 12 and over in the United States since 1971. They looked at survey responses from more than 200,000 adolescents age 12 to 17 from 2005 to 2017, and almost 400,000 adults age 18 and over from 2008 to 2017.

The rate of individuals reporting symptoms consistent with major depression in the last 12 months increased 52 percent in adolescents from 2005 to 2017 (from 8.7 percent to 13.2 percent) and 63 percent in young adults age 18 to 25 from 2009 to 2017 (from 8.1 percent to 13.2 percent). There was also a 71 percent increase in young adults experiencing serious psychological distress in the previous 30 days from 2008 to 2017 (from 7.7 percent to 13.1 percent). The rate of young adults with suicidal thoughts or other suicide-related outcomes increased 47 percent from 2008 to 2017 (from 7.0 percent to 10.3 percent).

There was no significant increase in the percentage of older adults experiencing depression or psychological distress during corresponding time periods. The researchers even saw a slight decline in psychological distress in individuals over 65.

“Cultural trends in the last 10 years may have had a larger effect on mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes among younger generations compared with older generations,” said Twenge, who believes this trend may be partially due to increased use of electronic communication and digital media, which may have changed modes of social interaction enough to affect mood disorders. She also noted research shows that young people are not sleeping as much as they did in previous generations.

The increase in digital media use may have had a bigger impact on teens and young adults because older adults’ social lives are more stable and might have changed less than teens’ social lives have in the last ten years, said Twenge. Older adults might also be less likely to use digital media in a way that interferes with sleep — for example, they might be better at not staying up late on their phones or using them in the middle of the night.

“These results suggest a need for more research to understand how digital communication versus face-to-face social interaction influences mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes and to develop specialized interventions for younger age groups,” she said.

Given that the increase in mental health issues was sharpest after 2011, Twenge believes it’s unlikely to be due to genetics or economic woes and more likely to be due to sudden cultural changes, such as shifts in how teens and young adults spend their time outside of work and school. If so, that may be good news, she said.

“Young people can’t change their genetics or the economic situation of the country, but they can choose how they spend their leisure time. First and most important is to get enough sleep. Make sure your device use doesn’t interfere with sleep — don’t keep phones or tablets in the bedroom at night, and put devices down within an hour of bedtime,” she said. “Overall, make sure digital media use doesn’t interfere with activities more beneficial to mental health such as face-to-face social interaction, exercise and sleep.”

Making Yourself More Likable to Others, According to Research

There isn’t enough cooperation in our divisive world, and being better liked should help people access more valuable opportunities.

Copy the person you’re with

This strategy is called mirroring, and involves subtly mimicking another person’s behaviour. When talking to someone, try copying their body language, gestures, and facial expressions.

In 1999, New York University researchers documented the “chameleon effect“, which occurs when people unconsciously mimic each other’s behaviour. That mimicry facilitates liking.

Researchers had 72 men and women work on a task with a partner. The partners (who worked for the researchers) either mimicked the other participant’s behaviour or didn’t, while researchers videotaped the interactions.

At the end of the interaction, the researchers had participants indicate how much they liked their partners.

Sure enough, participants were more likely to say that they liked their partner when their partner had been mimicking their behaviour.

Spend more time around the people you’re hoping to befriend

According to the mere-exposure effect, people tend to like other people who are familiar to them.

In one example of this phenomenon, psychologists at the University of Pittsburgh had four women pose as students in a university psychology class. Each woman showed up in class a different number of times.

When experimenters showed male students pictures of the four women, the men demonstrated a greater affinity for those women they’d seen more often in class – even though they hadn’t interacted with any of them.

[…]

Tell them a secret

Self-disclosure may be one of the best relationship-building techniques.

In a study led by researchers at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the California Graduate School of Family Psychology, the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Arizona State University, college students were paired off and told to spend 45 minutes getting to know each other.

Experimenters provided some student pairs with a series of questions to ask, which got increasingly deep and personal.

For example, one of the intermediate questions was “How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?” Other pairs were given small-talk-type questions. For example, one question was “What is your favourite holiday? Why?”

At the end of the experiment, the students who’d asked increasingly personal questions reported feeling much closer to each other than students who’d engaged in small talk.

You can try this technique on your own as you’re getting to know someone. For example, you can build up from asking easy questions (like the last movie they saw) to learning about the people who mean the most to them in life.

When you share intimate information with another person, they are more likely to feel closer to you and want to confide in you in the future.

Show that you can keep their secrets, too

Two experiments led by researchers at the University of Florida, Arizona State University, and Singapore Management University found that people place a high value on both trustworthiness and trustingness in their relationships.

Those two traits proved especially important when people were imagining their ideal friend and ideal employee.

As Suzanne Degges-White of Northern Illinois University writes on PsychologyToday.com: “Trustworthiness is comprised of several components, including honesty, dependability, and loyalty, and while each is important to successful relationships, honesty and dependability have been identified as the most vital in the realm of friendships.”

Display a sense of humour

Research from Illinois State University and California State University at Los Angeles found that, regardless of whether people were thinking about their ideal friend or romantic partner, a sense of humour was really important.

Another study from researchers at DePaul University and Illinois State University found that using humour when you’re first getting to know someone can make the person like you more.

[…]

Act like you like them

Psychologists have known for a while about a phenomenon called ‘reciprocity of liking‘: When we think someone likes us, we tend to like them as well.

In one 1959 study published in Human Relations, for example, participants were told that certain members of a group discussion would probably like them. These group members were chosen randomly by the experimenter.

After the discussion, participants indicated that the people they liked best were the ones who supposedly liked them.

More recently, researchers at the University of Waterloo and the University of Manitoba found that when we expect people to accept us, we act warmer toward them – thereby increasing the chances that they really will like us.

Link Between Bad Diets and Psychological Distress Found

There’s a reason it’s called junk food.

A study has found that poor mental health is linked with poor diet quality — regardless of personal characteristics such as gender age, education, age, marital status and income level.

The study, published Feb. 16 in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, revealed that California adults who consumed more unhealthy food were also more likely to report symptoms of either moderate or severe psychological distress than their peers who consume a healthier diet.

Jim E. Banta, PhD, MPH, associate professor at Loma Linda University School of Public Health and lead author of the study, said the results are similar to previous studies conducted in other countries that have found a link between mental illness and unhealthy diet choices. Increased sugar consumption has been found to be associated with bipolar disorder, for example, and consumption of foods that have been fried or contain high amounts of sugar and processed grains have been linked with depression.

“This and other studies like it could have big implications for treatments in behavorial medicine,” Banta said. “Perhaps the time has come for us to take a closer look at the role of diet in mental health, because it could be that healthy diet choices contribute to mental health. More research is needed before we can answer definitively, but the evidence seems to be pointing in that direction.”

Banta cautioned that the link found between poor diet and mental illness is not a causal relationship. Still, he said the findings from California build upon previous studies and could affect future research and the approaches that healthcare providers administer for behavioral medicine treatments.

In their study, Banta and his team reviewed data from more than 240,000 telephone surveys conducted between 2005 and 2015 as part of the multi-year California Health Interview Survey (CHIS). The CHIS dataset includes extensive information about socio-demographics, health status and health behaviors and was designed to provide statewide approximations for regions within California and for various ethnic groups.

The study found that nearly 17 percent of California adults are likely to suffer from mental illness — 13.2 percent with moderate psychological distress and 3.7 percent with severe psychological distress.

The study stated that the team’s findings provide “additional evidence that public policy and clinical practice should more explicitly aim to improve diet quality among those struggling with mental health.” It also stated that “dietary interventions for people with mental illness should especially target young adults, those with less than 12 years of education, and obese individuals.”

Healthier Diets Reduce Depressive Symptoms

There’s research that has again verified this connection.

An analysis of data from almost 46,000 people has found that weight loss, nutrient boosting and fat reduction diets can all reduce the symptoms of depression.

Dr Joseph Firth, an Honorary Research fellow at The University of Manchester and Research Fellow at NICM Health Research Institute at Western Sydney University, says existing research has been unable to definitively establish if dietary improvement could benefit mental health.

But in a new study published in Psychosomatic Medicine, Dr Firth and colleagues brought together all existing data from clinical trials of diets for mental health conditions.

And the study provides convincing evidence that dietary improvement significantly reduces symptoms of depression, even in people without diagnosed depressive disorders.

Dr Firth said: “The overall evidence for the effects of diet on mood and mental well-being had up to now yet to be assessed.

“But our recent meta-analysis has done just that; showing that adopting a healthier diet can boost peoples’ mood. However, it has no clear effects on anxiety.”

The study combined data from 16 randomised controlled trials that examined the effects of dietary interventions on symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Sixteen eligible trials with outcome data for 45,826 participants were included; the majority of which examined samples with non-clinical depression.

The study found that all types of dietary improvement appeared to have equal effects on mental health, with weight-loss, fat reduction or nutrient-improving diets all having similar benefits for depressive symptoms.

“This is actually good news” said Dr Firth; “The similar effects from any type of dietary improvement suggests that highly-specific or specialised diets are unnecessary for the average individual.

“Instead, just making simple changes is equally beneficial for mental health. In particular, eating more nutrient-dense meals which are high in fibre and vegetables, while cutting back on fast-foods and refined sugars appears to be sufficient for avoiding the potentially negative psychological effects of a ‘junk food’ diet.

Dr Brendon Stubbs, co-author of the study and Clinical Lecturer at the NIHR Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre and King’s College London, added: “Our data add to the growing evidence to support lifestyle interventions as an important approach to tackle low mood and depression.

“Specifically, our results within this study found that when dietary interventions were combined with exercise, a greater improvement in depressive symptoms was experienced by people. Taken together, our data really highlight the central role of eating a healthier diet and taking regular exercise to act as a viable treatment to help people with low mood.”

Studies examined with female samples showed even greater benefits from dietary interventions for symptoms of both depression and anxiety.

Eating More Fruits and Vegetables Can Improve Mental Health

It makes sense that improvements in diet can improve not only physical but mental health as well.

The research showed a positive association between the quantity of fruit and vegetables consumed and people’s self-reported mental well-being.

Specifically, the findings indicate that eating just one extra portion of fruits and vegetables a day could have an equivalent effect on mental well-being as around 8 extra days of walking a month (for at least 10 minutes at a time).

Dr Neel Ocean of the University of Leeds, who authored the study with Dr Peter Howley (University of Leeds) and Dr Jonathan Ensor (University of York), said: “It’s well-established that eating fruit and vegetables can benefit physical health.

“Recently, newer studies have suggested that it may also benefit psychological well-being. Our research builds on previous work in Australia and New Zealand by verifying this relationship using a much bigger UK sample.

“While further work is needed to demonstrate cause and effect, the results are clear: people who do eat more fruit and vegetables report a higher level of mental well-being and life satisfaction than those who eat less.”

Dr Howley said: “There appears to be accumulating evidence for the psychological benefits of fruits and vegetables. Despite this, the data show that the vast majority of people in the UK still consume less than their five-a-day.

People Act Differently in Virtual Reality Than in Real Life

In our increasingly digital world, real life remains incredibly important for genuine human interactions.

Immersive virtual reality (VR) can be remarkably lifelike, but new UBC research has found a yawning gap between how people respond psychologically in VR and how they respond in real life.

“People expect VR experiences to mimic actual reality and thus induce similar forms of thought and behaviour,” said Alan Kingstone, a professor in UBC’s department of psychology and the study’s senior author. “This study shows that there’s a big separation between being in the real world, and being in a VR world.”

The study used virtual reality to examine factors that influence yawning, focusing specifically on contagious yawning. Contagious yawning is a well-documented phenomenon in which people — and some non-human animals — yawn reflexively when they detect a yawn nearby.

Research has shown that “social presence” deters contagious yawning. When people believe they are being watched, they yawn less, or at least resist the urge. This may be due to the stigma of yawning in social settings, or its perception in many cultures as a sign of boredom or rudeness.

The team from UBC, along with Andrew Gallup from State University of New York Polytechnic Institute, tried to bring about contagious yawning in a VR environment. They had test subjects wear an immersive headset and exposed them to videos of people yawning. In those conditions, the rate of contagious yawning was 38 per cent, which is in line with the typical real-life rate of 30-60 per cent.

However, when the researchers introduced social presence in the virtual environment, they were surprised to find it had little effect on subjects’ yawning. Subjects yawned at the same rate, even while being watched by a virtual human avatar or a virtual webcam. It was an interesting paradox: stimuli that trigger contagious yawns in real life did the same in virtual reality, but stimuli that suppress yawns in real life did not.

The presence of an actual person in the testing room had a more significant effect on yawning than anything in the VR environment. Even though subjects couldn’t see or hear their company, simply knowing a researcher was present was enough to diminish their yawning. Social cues in actual reality appeared to dominate and supersede those in virtual reality.

Virtual reality has caught on as a research tool in psychology and other fields, but these findings show that researchers may need to account for its limitations.

“Using VR to examine how people think and behave in real life may very well lead to conclusions that are fundamentally wrong. This has profound implications for people who hope to use VR to make accurate projections regarding future behaviours,” said Kingstone. “For example, predicting how pedestrians will behave when walking amongst driverless cars, or the decisions that pilots will make in an emergency situation. Experiences in VR may be a poor proxy for real life.”