Stress and adrenal fatigue is a plague in our modern world. I wrote about the connection between stress and depression/anxiety, but it goes so much further than that. The stress response at one point gave our ancestors the energy and endurance they required to escape life-threatening dangers. Stress in our society doesn’t always let up – our jobs, relationships, environmental stress and the stress of world events are always staring us in the face. Research reported by the National Institutes of Health, links long term activation of stress to having a hazardous effect on our bodies, increasing risk of obesity, heart disease, depression, anorexia, and lowering our immune system.
Years ago, when I was still a student of interior design, I wrote my design thesis on healing environments. I was fascinated with the fact that gardens and plants used in offices and healthcare settings could have a dramatic healing effect. I now have a lot of knowledge of how consuming plants has an effect on our health, but were you aware that they can influence our psychology and rate of healing by just being in their presence?
Thousands of years ago, plants and gardens were often utilized in healthcare environments. For example, during the middle ages in Europe, monasteries created elaborate gardens to soothe and distract the ill. In the 1800s, such gardens were commonly used and their healing effects were largely understood. St Bernard, (1090-1153) wrote of his intentions at his hospice in Clairvaux, France:
Within this enclosure many and various trees…make a veritable grove… The sick man sits upon the green lawn…he is secure, hidden, shaded from the heat of the day… For the comfort of his pain, all kinds of grasses are fragrant in his nostrils. The lovely green of herb and tree nourishes his eyes… The choir of painted birds caresses his ears…the earth breathes with fruitfulness, and the invalid himself with eyes, ears and nostrils, drinks in the delights of colours, songs and perfumes (quoted in Warner, 1995. P.8)
However, by the 1900s when advances in medical science became more concerned with reducing risk of infection and creating facilities which were more efficient for their medical technology, the use of plants and gardens within the hospital setting vanished. Despite the stress of illness, pain and traumatic experiences, hospitals are typically starkly institutional, stressful and do not support the emotional needs of patients, their families and healthcare staff.
Several studies of non-patient and patient groups have consistently shown that simply looking at environments dominated by greenery, flowers or water is significantly more effective in promoting recovery and restoration from stress often manifested in only 3-5 minutes.
Psychological/emotional: Views of vegetation or garden-like features elevate levels of positive feeling and reduce negative emotions such as fear, anger and sadness. Scenes of nature have the ability to distract the mind and serve as pleasant distractions to diminish stressful thoughts.
Physiological: Laboratory and clinical investigations have found that viewing nature settings can produce significant positive changes such as lower blood pressure and muscle tension as well as normalizing heart and brain activity.
In Japan in 1990, Nakamura and Fujii, conducted two studies measuring brain wave activity on unstressed individuals. In the first experiment, the individuals would view either a variety of potted plants, or the same pots without plants. The alpha rhythm brain analysis results suggested that the individuals were more wakefully relaxed when observing the plants with flowers and relaxed the least when they looked at the pots without plants.
In the second study, they recorded the electroencephalogram (EEG) while the individuals were seated in an outdoor setting and viewed a hedge of greenery or a concrete fence with similar dimensions to the hedge. They were also tested while viewing a combination of greenery and concrete. The EEG data supported the conclusion that the greenery elicited relaxation whereas the concrete had stressful influences.
A more significant study, conducted back in 1984(!) compared the recovery of gall bladder surgery patients who had either a bedside window view of either trees or a brick building with no nature. To keep consistent outcomes, the patients were equivalent in age, weight, tobacco use and general medical history. The data concluded that those with the nature view compared with those who looked out at the wall, had shorter hospital stays and suffered fewer post-surgical complications. Staff also reported more positive written comments, such as ‘patient is in good spirits’. Those who viewed a wall had far more negative comments from staff, frequently needed more encouragement and required more doses of narcotic pain killers than the patients with a view of the trees.
When looking at both examples of non-patients and patients it is quite simply illustrated to us, that the presence of nature has a calming and restorative effect on our emotions, psychology and physiology. However, when we look at our own physical environment, we can see that often it doesn’t support us. Many of us congregate to stark concrete cities, spending the majority of our time confined within an office, commuting on the road and hibernating within our own homes (even though the beautiful summer season is upon us).
For our overall health, it pays to not only support ourselves with the nourishment that nature provides by consuming freshly grown fruits and vegetables but also by taking time out to sit and observe nature. It is often when we are most stressed, worried, upset or sick that we wish to confine ourselves to the comforts of our home environment, but in those times, get outside or have a lush green view to support and nourish you inside and out.
Next time you are stressed, worried or anxious, turn off your cell phone and sit in your garden or go for a walk in nature or somewhere there are views of nature. Instead of putting your attention and focusing on your negative emotions, observe your breath, your surroundings and let nature provide…