The American Institute of Stress lists 50 common signs of excessive stress. FIFTY! Even if we are aware of the possible effects of stress, it is amazing to think that everything from headaches to back pain to insomnia, forgetfulness or asthma and heart attacks or possibly even cancer can all be the byproducts of too much stress on a regular basis. Stress, if not managed, can affect tissues and organs throughout the entire body and ultimately kill you. The AIS states that “It’s difficult for scientists to completely define the effects of stress because it is a highly subjective phenomenon that differs for each of us. Things that are distressful for some individuals can be pleasurable for others. We also respond to stress differently. Some people blush, some eat more while others grow pale or eat less.”
And just as the effects of stress are very individual, the remedies to reduce stress are even more varied and personal. Where some may run or do rigorous exercise to relax and reduce stress, others may meditate or do yoga. Some might sit under a tree or relax by a beautiful waterfall while someone else chops wood or weeds the garden. One thing we have discovered over the past three years since beginning the COME ALIVE OUTSIDE movement in the Green Industry is that our quickest route to relieving stress is often found right outside the front door. It has been inspiring to connect with so many people across North America who get just as excited about getting kids and adults back outside as we do. So it is thrilling to share an article written just for this newsletter from one of our academic friends who is equally passionate about the importance of nature on the healthy lives we all deserve to live. Dr. Reese Nelson, professor of Horticulture at Brigham Young University in Idaho, provides some startling statistics along with his own perspective on stress, our health and the benefits nature can have on both.
Human Health and Stress
by Reese Nelson
In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the rate of antidepressant use in the United States rose by 400 percent between 1988 and 2008.(i) While some of this increase may be due to aggressive pharmaceutical marketing, better psychiatric out-reach or more people (like me) writing about it, there is a trend of people being more frustrated, depressed, and stressed, especially in the wealthy countries of the world.
This mental illness growth phenomenon interestingly corresponds to an increase in urbanization. As of 2010, for the first time in history, more than half the world’s population lives in cities. Rapid urbanization makes people more vulnerable to stress.(ii)
Thankfully forward thinking people like Fredrick Law Olmsted, the father of Landscape Architecture, coined the tranquility hypothesis, which says, “Nature reproduced in urban settings brings tranquility and rest to the mind.” He and many others played roles in setting aside green space for future generations including the creation of National Parks. What would Manhattan be without Central Park?
The Green Industry can also be a part of the solution, bringing people in close proximity to nature by inviting them outside. This is the very essence of what we do in the Green Industry – and it behooves us to be able to articulate the benefits of being in nature to our clients. As Roger Ulrich said, “Intuitive arguments in favor of plants often make little impression on financially pressed local or state governments . . . faced with urgent problems such as inner city poverty, politicians may dismiss planting programs as unwarranted luxuries, or overlook them altogether.” One of the most profound benefits of spending time in nature is that it restores us from stress.
Four terms in the stress literature have caught my attention:
- Nature is an antidote to stress, suggesting that if you have a stressful situation coming up, you can inoculate yourself against it prophylactically by spending time in nature.(iii)
- Nature provides collateral benefits to caregivers. I recently visited a hospital in Portland, part of the Legacy Health System. The garden was themed in the Wizard of Oz, complete with a yellow brick road made of yellow pavers. Themed alcoves of the Tin man, the Lion and the Scarecrow welcomed children cancer patients. These garden places were built to allow health care providers to have very difficult conversations about life and death with the families of patients. When I visited the garden, those kinds of conversations were happening, but I also noticed that doctors and nurses were taking their breaks in the same garden, not specifically made for them. This suggests that they, the caregivers, have stressful jobs and needed a stress reprieve.(iv)
- Nature provides insulation against the psychological downsides of urban living.(v)
- Natures facilitate contemplation and mindfulness; both are recommended tools to aid in stress mitigation.(vi)
If we as an industry, can better articulate why nature is important, then maybe we can do a better job communicating that to the general public, municipalities or property owners who control the purse-strings. Until stress can be reduced, we must all use tools to mitigate it. Hopefully our tools will include nature.
Reese Nelson teaches the art and science of horticulture and continues to spread the good word of horticulture at BYU-Idaho.
(i) The New York Times – Is The World More Depressed?, T.M. Luhrmoan March 24, 2014
(ii) Per Angelstram, Grahn, 2013
(iii) University of Essex, 2005
(iv) Parson, Ulrich, Tassinary, 1994
(v) Cervinka, Roderer, Helfer 2012(vi) Howell, Dopdo, Passmore 2011
GO PLAY! That’s what your mom used to say when you and your brother started squabbling over toys or the TV channel or a hundred other things kids fight about. What she probably meant most of the time was GO PLAY OUTSIDE which obviously relieved her stress in listening to you, but undoubtedly changed the topic of what was wrong to what is always right when you go play outside. Kids and adults are always refreshed and renewed when they engage all of the senses in play and the best place to do it is generally outside in nature. Can you remember going out to stand in the rain just because? Anyone with children, or anyone that has observed them, has noticed their ability to be spontaneous and their uninhibited enjoyment of the basics.
Tell a kid it’s OK to get all wet, and they’ll jump right into the puddle. To develop the flexibility to be creative, we need to give ourselves license to immerse ourselves into real “puddle splashing experiences” rather than removing ourselves to observation mode. Squish the mud, roll with the dog, lick the juice of a tangerine off your fingers and laugh as it runs down your arm. Make as many experiences as possible a sensory adventure. Play!
One of the first things we lose sight of when we become “grown-ups” is how to simply play, and the rules of adulthood get in the way. Remember how going out to play after school felt so good? Why not liberate yourself to do the same every day with our younger playmates in tow.
Play is fundamental to our well being, our creativity and sometimes can trick us into feeling like work as we fight all the conventions of adult society. But as we practice, play becomes more natural, as it was when we were children. Allowing for a little playtime each day provides for the renewal we all need. It allows us to tap into the expansive part of us that propels us toward new things . . . and, we are refreshed!