Nature, a cure for anxiety

 

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Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.

 

Albert Einstein

 

 

We find ourselves inhabiting a world where, increasingly a digital arms race is underway for our attention.  The rise of the attention economy and the technology that is driving it offers profound benefits for the continued progress of humanity; not least the removal of human drudgery and the freeing up of human possibility.  However, the juxtaposition between the increasing use of automation, the applications of artificial general intelligence (AGI) and what it really means to be human is exposes the faustian pact we are unwittingly accomplice to. 

 

Survive a world of notifications

Dramatic urbanisation during the 20th century set the context and with the recent and on-going digitisation of our global economy this results in a hyper complex environment where, increasingly, we find ourselves acting as the human handbrake slowing down the system.  The majority of knowledge workers now spend most of their waking time in front of a device - constantly surfing a constant wave of nudges and notifications.

 

The general speed of our daily lives is being constantly manipulated upwards – perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of the technological revolution that is underway.  If so, what if anything can we do to manage ourselves better and help to reduce the anxiety that goes hand in hand with our modern existence?

 

Cortisol is the bodies primary stress hormone and prehistorically as a hunter gather we would have had it surging through us during the course of our daily routine.  It triggers our fight, flight or freeze mechanism.   Yet we have only been living in towns and cities, from evolutionary terms, for less than 0.01% of human existence.   The problem is that we haven’t yet caught up with our new reality, which features lots of micro stresses – vibrations, emails, noises and traffic jams which trigger our flight or fight response.  However unlike our prehistoric ancestors we don’t expend the energy necessary to remove cortisol from the system – it just builds up in micro surges throughout the day.

 

Anxiety is now one of the most diagnosed mental illnesses in the west having over taken depression in recent years and there is a growing movement of psychologists and therapists claiming that our disconnect from nature is making the effect worse.  Constant communication, 24 hour news, traffic, crowds, concrete, glass and steel skyscrapers are surrounding us as our lives grow ever more hectic.

 

We have all experienced being anxious – that feeling of dread or stress in the chest, the increase in heart beat, sweating and inability to think straight; like that moment before you have an exam or give a presentation.  It’s like constantly hearing the music for the final boss in a video game except the final boss never shows up.  Anxiety is usually treated with medication, talking groups and mindfulness training – indeed the rise and popularity of certain popular apps such as headspace and calm have helped create a $1 billion industry.  But there is another therapy that can’t be downloaded and that is eco-psychology; this is a field that is concerned with the human and nature relationship.   Patricia Hasbach, a clinical psychotherapist and eco-therapist in Oregon, makes the case that whereas people are traditionally prescribed sedatives or painkillers - in her practice they are encouraged to simply get out in nature.  As she says “we literally call it a nature prescription”.  Eco-therapy should be thought of as another tool in the eco-therapists tool box, it’s not a panacea and its not going to erase somebodies pain or grief but it alleviates one of the traditional problems with therapy that has stopped at the urban boundary.   You might be starting to think that this is all tree hugging, hippie, middle class garbage….yet the effects of nature seem to be intuitively undeniable.

 

A natural antidote

So why does nature make us more calm?  In 1984 a piece of research entitled ‘view through a window may influence recovery from surgery’ was published in the journal science where a researcher named Roger Ulrig evaluated hospital records over a 10 year period and looked at the difference between nurses notes of recovery from patients who had had gall bladder surgery and found there was one significant difference in all outcomes – it was between people who could see three trees from their window and those who couldn’t.  To reiterate the point the only difference between all those conditions was the presence or absence of nature. 

 

Rachel and Stephen Kaplan are both professors from the university of Michigan specialising in environmental psychology and they are known for developing ‘attention restoration therapy’ in their 1989 book ‘the experience of nature a psychological perspective’.  The theory suggests that people can concentrate better after spending time in nature or even by just looking at images of nature. 

It allows your brain to give effortless attention towards what they call ‘soft fascinations’ which give the brain a break to meander, unlike the focussed attention required when crossing the street for example.   There are two reasons why researchers believe nature is important for our health :  the first one is associated with the ‘biophilia’ approach; biophilia in essence is the innate positive response that people have with life and life like features – so the idea is that nature reminds us of life and if we are exposed to the natural elements then our negative feelings get almost immediately replaced with positive emotions suggesting that we have an innate response to life and life like features.  And the second is a more cognitive theory, which suggests we all have a barrel of focussed attention that we use to cope with daily life such that even though much of what we do is innately fascinating it has to be ignored so that we can concentrate on our task.  Nature it seems has an ability to support recovery on directed attention fatigue more than just rest because nature has these soft fascinating qualities which are things that you can’t get even if you just walk down the road - as you have to be aware of oncoming cars, pedestrians etc all of which contributes to the reduction of our storage of directed attention.   So when our directed attention store runs out we get tired, we get irritable we can’t concentrate and we get more anxious. 

 

To recover our storage of directed attention we can use nature.  Nature has the ability to support the recovery of directed attention fatigue more than just rest because these soft fascinating qualities in nature, which attract our attention, do so in a bottom up way that helps us then rest our directed attention fatigue.  Looking at the waves in the sea or the leaves flickering in the trees are things you can just look at and stare at.  These objects let our attention drift away and recharge our direct attention stores.  So your attention is on something they think is healing and you find these soft focus objects most in nature. 

5 trees and flowers a day 

 

So how can we make this of practical use for as wide an audience as possible?  We can’t all live in the woods but we can help fix our own environments by designing nature into them.  One tip is to combine and think about your own journey everyday from when you wake up to your commute to where you go at lunch - how can you bring nature into as many facets of your daily journey as possible?  Perhaps you might experiment by doing more fitness outside rather than inside of a sanitised gym.  Perhaps you might incorporate more cycling as part of your commute.  Perhaps you might prioritise a walk in the park as part of your lunch break or post work activity.  One thing is for certain if we embrace a marginal gains philosophy then every little area where we can improve our circumstances will have a positive overall effect on the whole.

 

At The Human Experience we are trying to help each other see the wood through the trees – and we are seeking to optimise what it really means to be human.  So whilst it’s too simplistic to think that nature by itself can cure anxiety and other mental health challenges it is, we contend, a powerful tool that is on hand and should be encouraged.