Anxiety Prone? A Walk in Nature May Not Be Best Choice

Scenic Landscape and RiverEver dealt with anxiety, or know someone who has? One of the most common suggestions to relax and restore the anxious mind is to take a walk in nature. In fact, a mountain of studies tells us that spending time in a natural area, as opposed to an urban jungle, can not only help alleviate anxiety, but also improve sleep and boost the immune system.

Enter new research out of Providence College in Rhode Island that turns that theory on its ear. Published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, the study found evidence that those prone to anxiety should instead take a walk in a busy, urban environment.

“Previous literature says that natural environments tend to restore cognitive abilities better than urban environments, but we questioned whether this one-sided perspective was accurate,” said lead study author Kevin Newman, PhD, assistant professor at Providence College.

For their research, the team asked participants to perform a number of mentally draining tasks, such as not thinking about a certain animal or writing sentences without the letters “A” or “N.” Afterward, they were given personality tests to determine their level of neuroticism, including questions about how much they worried, whether they tended to be irritable, highly strung or experienced up and down moods.

A follow-up session exposed them to words and images of either a busy urban environment or a natural setting. Surprisingly, the researchers found that people high in neuroticism felt better when exposed to the stressful words and images of an urban environment. For the others, the imagery and words associated with nature were the most calming.

“People tended to do better in environments that fit with their personality,” Newman said. “Imagine someone with a neurotic personality like Woody Allen. If you put him in a forest, it could be very off-putting rather than rejuvenating.”

Health, Business Implications

The researchers also discovered that stress recovery was linked to one’s ability to exert self-control, which, Newman said, has implications related to health outcomes. For example, people might make more wholesome food choices if they choose environments that match their personality type. The findings could also influence the way companies design spaces or travel experiences, such as a cruise line that includes zip-lining for the more high-strung passengers and time on the beach for the others.

The environmental needs of different personality types are more relevant than ever as studies show that Americans are a fairly anxious lot. Nearly one in five of us has an anxiety disorder. And according to a new survey from the American Psychological Association, there’s been an increase in the number of adults who experience “extreme stress,” with 24% reporting they were highly stressed in 2015, compared with 18% the year before. The top contributors to stress include money, work, feeling like you’ve been treated unfairly or discriminated against, family responsibilities, health concerns and the economy.

How Stress Impacts Health

While stress can be exhausting in the moment — think traffic jam or public speaking — chronic stress can be dangerous to your well-being. Many health problems are caused or made worse by stress, including heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, insomnia, depression, skin conditions like eczema, and eating disorders. Stress also becomes harmful when people turn to alcohol or other drugs for relief.

If you feel like your stress is getting out of hand, here’s how to gain some control:

  • Do you ever create a “to-do” list just to fill up empty time or because you think you should be more productive? Pare your list to only the things that absolutely must be done today.
  • Whether it’s yoga or running, exercise gives you the time to contemplate and relax. Research has found that regular exercise decreases overall levels of tension, improves mood and sleep, and heightens self-esteem. Even five minutes of daily aerobic exercise can do the trick.
  • Get a massage. Massage has been used as a stress reliever for thousands of years. Beyond relaxing tense muscles, massage produces feelings of caring, comfort and connection. It’s as good for the mind as the body.
  • Sleep is the body’s built-in way of dealing with stress. Keep a sleep hygiene schedule and aim for seven to nine hours of shut-eye every night. You are compromising your ability to manage stress if you don’t.
  • Practice gratitude. Writing down what we’re grateful for can really help us put things in perspective. Keep a journal by your beside and make note of what you’re thankful for today. Research shows it can make us calmer and more optimistic, too.
  • Be Mindful. Meditation, or mindfulness, takes just 15 to 30 minutes a day, and the only tool you need is your mind. Giving yourself time to let your thoughts run free or to just focus on your breathing helps relieve stress. Mindfulness meditation has become so popular that many hospitals now offer classes in the practice. You can also find meditation classes at some yoga studios or check out these apps for guidance.
  • Get Help. If you’re doing these things and still feel not feeling relief, there may be some other mental health issues that need to be addressed. When stress is preventing you from enjoying life or affects your sense of well-being, ask for help from a mental health professional.
Posted on June 27th, 2016
Posted in Mental Health

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