If you want a natural stress-reliever, try nature. There’s a small but growing body of research that suggests a weekend in the country or even a walk in the park can reduce stress, with positive, knock-on effects for your health. In Japan, this idea has been formalized into a practice called shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, for which there are 48 state-designated "Forest Therapy" trails.
"The theory posits that we are all hard wired for connection with nature," says Jenny Roe an environmental psychologist who studies this phenomenon. "It's called the biophilia hypothesis."
Unfortunately, we don’t all have access to nature. In our unequal and increasingly urban world, there are plenty of people who live not just in the absence of wild forests or even parks, but where there’s not even any plant life in sight. According to a new study Roe and colleagues have published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, providing more greenspace in disadvantaged neighborhoods—even just a nearby garden—could help, especially for women, the study's most stressed subset population.
"Women in levels of low green space had this chronic pattern of burnout," says Roe, "and green space seemed to offer some kind of buffer to that. "
Roe and her team recruited 106 unemployed men and women, age 35 to 55, in Dundee, Scotland—a city in the news all too often for its high levels of child poverty. Some of them lived in "low green-space" neighborhoods, where there were not even street trees, and some in "high green-space," where front gardens, street trees, open space views populated the area.
What the researchers asked those participants to do was, Roe believes, unique. For two days, they received text messages at three specific times over the day, reminding them to take a cotton swab of their saliva. These swabs were used to establish levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone, throughout the day. While getting compliance was a challenge, it allowed them to look not just at the level of cortisol at a point in time, but also the changes throughout the day. "It’s about the slope," says Roe. "The steeper the gradient; the healthier your stress regulation is. The flatter that slope, the poorer your stress regulation is."
The study found that men and women living a nature-free life had flatter coritsol slopes, and therefore worse stress regulation. But there was a marked difference between the men and the women. "If you look at the women in our study, they had a low flat slope cycle, it’s called hypocortisolemia… that is really indicative of what we would call burn-out, you know, chronic stress and exhaustion," says Roe.
The sample of the study is small, and the conditions particular, but Roe believes the results suggest that green space really can provide relief for the most disadvantaged and rundown city dwellers. "It’s not going to help you manage a redundancy or a divorce or a bereavement," she says, "but for the everyday stresses of life—noise, traffic, just general cognitive overload—green space does appear to make a difference."