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.”

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Doing Math With Better Posture Improves Performance, Study Finds

The research has implications for other areas of performance too.

If you’ve ever felt like a deer in the headlights before taking a math test or speaking before a large group of people, you could benefit from a simple change in posture. As part of a new study by researchers at San Francisco State University, 125 college students were tested to see how well they could perform simple math — subtracting 7 from 843 sequentially for 15 seconds — while either slumped over or sitting up straight with shoulders back and relaxed. Fifty-six percent of the students reported finding it easier to perform the math in the upright position.

“For people who are anxious about math, posture makes a giant difference,” said Professor of Health Education Erik Peper. “The slumped-over position shuts them down and their brains do not work as well. They cannot think as clearly.” Before the study began, students filled out an anonymous questionnaire asking them to rate their anxiety levels while taking exams and performing math; they also described any physical symptoms of stress they experienced during test taking.

According to co-author Associate Professor of Health Education Richard Harvey, slumping over is a defensive posture that can trigger old negative memories in the body and brain. While the students without math anxiety did not report as great a benefit from better posture, they did find that doing math while slumped over was somewhat more difficult.

Peper and Harvey say these findings about body position can help people prepare for many different types of performance under stress, not just math tests. Athletes, musicians and public speakers can all benefit from better posture prior to and during their performance. “You have a choice,” said Peper. “It’s about using an empowered position to optimize your focus.”

That empowerment could be particularly helpful to students facing the challenge called “stereotype threat,” said Lauren Mason, one of the paper’s authors and a recent SF State graduate. A first-generation college student, Mason can identify with such students, who experience fear and insecurity because of a belief by others — which can become internalized — that they won’t do as well at math. Mason said she has benefitted personally from using a more empowered posture before taking difficult tests, including math. She believes that adopting a more confident posture could help other first-generation students as well as women entering science and math, who often battle stereotype threat, too.

“I always felt insecure about my math abilities even though I excelled at other subjects,” said Mason, who helped design the experiment in the study. “You build a relationship with [math] so early — as early as elementary school. You can carry that negative self-talk throughout your life, impacting your perception of yourself.”

Mason said the study results demonstrate a simple way to improve many aspects of life, especially when stress is involved: “The way we carry ourselves and interact in space influences not only how others perceive us but also how we perceive ourselves.”

Negative Behavior in Rough Times to Significant Others Has More Impact Than Positive Behavior, Study Finds

Something to think about in balancing relationships.

Refraining from bad behavior toward a significant other during stressful life events is more important than showing positive behavior, according to a Baylor University study.

Compared with positive gestures, negative ones tend to trigger more intense and immediate responses, according to the study. And how a couple works together during trying times is associated with individual well-being as well as satisfaction with the relationship.

“When people face stressful life events, they are especially sensitive to negative behavior in their relationships, such as when a partner seems to be argumentative, overly emotional, withdrawn or fails to do something that was expected,” said researcher Keith Sanford, Ph.D., professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences.

“In contrast, they’re less sensitive to positive behavior — such as giving each other comfort,” he said.

The study also found that low doses of a behavior are most important, and over time, more extreme levels have less impact.

“Because people are especially sensitive to negative relationship behavior, a moderate dose may be sufficient to produce a nearly maximum effect on increasing life stress,” Sanford said. “After negative behavior reaches a certain saturation point, it appears that stress is only minimally affected by further increases in the dose of relationship problems.”

[…]

“When people face stressful life events, it’s common to experience both positive and negative behavior in their relationships,” Sanford said. “When the goal is to increase feelings of well-being and lessen stress, it may be more important to decrease negative behavior than to increase positive actions.”

Health Benefits of ASMR Found in First Study of Its Kind

ASMR provides calming and stimulating sensation with no downsides currently known. It’s worth noting that the phenomenon hasn’t been researched much yet though — there may be more positives or negatives discovered in the future. There’s still an amazing amount that isn’t scientifically known about various aspects of the human mind.

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) — the relaxing ‘brain tingles’ experienced by some people in response to specific triggers, such as whispering, tapping and slow hand movements — may have benefits for both mental and physical health, according to new research.

Anti-Stress Injection of the Future? Immunization With Good Bacteria Made Rat Brains More Resilient to Stress in Study

Lots of potential implications for treating disorders or problems related to stress. Studies with rats are of course common and relevant because they share a surprising number of similarities to humans.

Immunization with beneficial bacteria can have long-lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, making it more resilient to the physical and behavioral effects of stress, according to new research by University of Colorado Boulder scientists.

The findings, if replicated in clinical trials could ultimately lead to new probiotic-based immunizations to protect against posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety or new treatments for depression, the authors say.

“We found that in rodents this particular bacterium, Mycobacterium vaccae, actually shifts the environment in the brain toward an anti-inflammatory state,” said lead author Matthew Frank, a senior research associate in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. “If you could do that in people, it could have broad implications for a number of neuroinflammatory diseases.”

Anxiety, PTSD and other stress-related mental disorders impact as many as one in four people in their lifetime. Mounting research suggests that stress-induced brain inflammation can boost risk of such disorders, in part by impacting mood-influencing neurotransmitters like norepinephrine or dopamine.

“There is a robust literature that shows if you induce an inflammatory immune response in people, they quickly show signs of depression and anxiety,” said Frank. “Just think about how you feel when you get the flu.”

Research also suggests that trauma, illness or surgery can sensitize certain regions of the brain, setting up a hair-trigger inflammatory response to subsequent stressors which can lead to mood disorders and cognitive decline.

“We found that Mycobacterium vaccae blocked those sensitizing effects of stress too, creating a lasting stress-resilient phenotype in the brain,” Frank said.

For the new study, published this week in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, Frank and senior author Christopher Lowry, an associate professor in integrative physiology, set out to find out what exactly M. vaccae does in the brain.

Male rats injected with the bacterium three times, one week apart, had significantly higher levels of the anti-inflammatory protein interleukin-4 in the hippocampus — a brain region responsible for modulating cognitive function, anxiety and fear — eight days after the final injection.

Benefits to Certain Types of Dark Chocolate

Why hasn’t this been studied much before?

New research shows there might be health benefits to eating certain types of dark chocolate. Findings from two studies being presented today at the Experimental Biology 2018 annual meeting in San Diego show that consuming dark chocolate that has a high concentration of cacao (minimally 70% cacao, 30% organic cane sugar) has positive effects on stress levels, inflammation, mood, memory and immunity. While it is well known that cacao is a major source of flavonoids, this is the first time the effect has been studied in human subjects to determine how it can support cognitive, endocrine and cardiovascular health.

Lee S. Berk, DrPH, associate dean of research affairs, School of Allied Health Professions and a researcher in psychoneuroimmunology and food science from Loma Linda University, served as principal investigator on both studies.

“For years, we have looked at the influence of dark chocolate on neurological functions from the standpoint of sugar content — the more sugar, the happier we are,” Berk said. “This is the first time that we have looked at the impact of large amounts of cacao in doses as small as a regular-sized chocolate bar in humans over short or long periods of time, and are encouraged by the findings. These studies show us that the higher the concentration of cacao, the more positive the impact on cognition, memory, mood, immunity and other beneficial effects.”

The flavonoids found in cacao are extremely potent antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents, with known mechanisms beneficial for brain and cardiovascular health.

Using Different Phone Notification Settings for Stress Reduction and Productivity Increases

An alternate approach than what’s usually used now. This is enough of a problem today to be worth posting about.

After you feel a buzz in your pocket or see a flash on your phone, your attention is already fractured.

You could pick up your phone and see if what’s called you away is something you really need to address immediately – or you could try and focus on your work, all the while wondering what you’re missing out on.

Since it can take close to 25 minutes to get back on track after a distraction, according to researchers who study productivity, this is obviously a recipe for a distracted day where not much gets done.

Fortunately, we are learning better ways to handle smartphone notifications, according to research being conducted at Duke University’s Center for Advanced Hindsight, which was presented by senior behavioural researcher Nick Fitz at a recent American Psychological Association conference.

The research was conducted in collaboration with the startup Synapse, which is incubated at the Center.

Fitz and collaborators have found that batching notifications into sets that study participants receive three times a day makes them happier, less stressed, feeling more productive, and more in control.