Experts share the simple but powerful ways that nature slashes stress and creates an instant, blissful escape — as close as your window! These natural cures for anxiety, depression, and insomnia will change your life.
You love everything about nature, from the birds weaving their songs through the canopy of trees above to the single, confident blade of grass pushing its way past the cracks in the sidewalk. You know the natural world you always took comfort in is still there, but you feel as if it may as well be a universe away. With the summer trip you planned to a national park on hold and the botanical garden exhibition you were looking forward to canceled, nature-like almost everything else-seems closed for business.
While it’s true things have changed, you can still reap the mental and emotional benefits of the great outdoors no matter where you live, promises happiness researcher John Zelenski, Ph.D. “Anything from gazing at a photo of a landscape to watering a houseplant, is proven to reduce anxiety and even spark pro-social behaviors like empathy, charitability and generosity.” One reason nature lifts our spirits so dramatically is that it fosters a uniquely calming state of mind called “soft fascination,” igniting creativity and slashing anxiety. In fact, one recent study shows that while money may not grow on trees, happiness just might: Having merely 10 more trees on a city block is so joyinducing, it’s proven to be the equivalent of feeling seven years younger.
And this beautiful fountain of youth and optimism takes as many forms as nature itself, from the sight of foliage to the sound of rain. Read on to learn how to tap Mother Nature’s stress Rx and rejuvenate your mind, body and spirit.
1. If you’re irritable
With so many recent changes, your nerves are frayed as the noise of everything from the news on the TV to your husband working in the next room seems louder, dialing up your anxiety. “We evolved to keep our ears peeled to nature, be it birdsong or rainfall,” says Wallace J. Nichols, Ph.D., author of Blue Mind. That’s why the din of modern life is so stressful, especially now that we’ve been spending time at home and can’t easily escape it.
- The natural cure: Tune into the soothing sound of blue noise. Move over, white noise: The sound of water, or blue noise, is more relaxing. That’s especially true when it comes to drowning out chattering voices, says Wallace, revealing that because our vocal range overlaps with the sound of moving water, it’s the ideal camouflage for the human voice. Listening to blue noise, such as playing the sound of rain or waves on YouTube, for two minutes quiets anxiety and lowers blood pressure.
2. If you’re overwhelmed
Over the past few months, you’ve had to wear more hats than ever, from amateur IT expert trying to learn new “words” like Zoom to personal finance pro finding creative ways to stretch your budget. In a word, it’s overwhelming. “As we take on more and more, it’s easy to feel like we aren’t equipped to cope,” says mental health expert Victoria Maxwell. “We can even start to doubt our own strengths and our ability to bounce back.”
- The natural cure: Enjoy ‘wabi-sabi’ mindfulness. The Japanese philosophy of ‘wabisabi’ means appreciating the beauty in the imperfect, particularly the sublime messiness of nature, from a cloudy day to the aging leaves of a houseplant, explains Maxwell. “Taking a moment to meditate on the beauty of nature’s flaws helps us recognize that our own imperfections are also beautiful, alleviating the pressure we put on ourselves and boosting our confidence.”
3. If you can’t sleep
You crave deep, restorative sleep, but anxiety conspires to keep you up for yet another night. Compounding the problem: “As we get older, the sleep hormone melatonin dips, while the stress hormone cortisol increases, making it even harder to drift off,” reveals Laura Koniver, M.D., author of The Earth Prescription. “And in a vicious cycle, when we’re sleep-deprived, we’re more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.”
- The natural cure: Invite sleep with one touch of the Earth. The Earth’s electrical field pulses at the same frequency as our brain’s relaxing alpha brain waves, reveals Dr. Koniver. “Touching the Earth, or ‘grounding,’ helps us sync up with that field and enter a healing state.” Despite its name, grounding doesn’t necessarily mean taking a barefoot walk on the grass. In one study, touching the earth for just 1 second was shown to lower tension and lead to more restorative sleep.
4. If you’re mentally drained
Between trying to pick the best time to visit the grocery store to figuring out the next career move you should make, decisions both big and small you thought you’d never be grappling with have left you mentally depleted. Before the health crisis, we were already making a staggering 35,000 choices per day, but today we’re facing even more dilemmas, exacerbating a form of mental exhaustion called decision fatigue. Every choice we’re faced with takes a toll, affecting our ability to problem-solve and eventually leading us to make worse decisions as the day goes on.
- The natural cure: Savor a serene snap for 40 seconds. Simply gazing at a photo of, say, a lush landscape or colorful rainbow, melts anxiety and improves decision-making. That’s because such scenes have “attention restoration” properties, moving us out of “fight or flight” into “tend and befriend,” says environmental psychologist Ming Kuo, Ph.D. “In one study, spending just 40 seconds looking at a simulated flowering meadow (versus concrete) warded off mental fatigue.” Interestingly, nature alone seems to have this effect, as images of faces, for example, actually make the brain work harder. Indeed, no matter how you choose to embrace it, nature is a powerful portal to peace.
This story originally appeared in our print magazine.