How I keep calm: nature resets your brain

How have you been keeping calm during the pandemic? Carillon

Inspired by, “how I keep calm” is our new series featuring different ways students are finding peace and contentment during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

One of the first articles I wrote for the Carillon was a piece on my camping experience in Grasslands National Park. Since that trip last August I’ve gone on three others, and have developed a passion for the outdoors because of the way it calms me. When I was on a five-day trip in Cypress Hills, I got curious as to why I always feel so much better the longer I spend in nature, so I did a little digging. 

According to a survey by Coleman Canadian Outdoor Report on 1,500 adults, 98 per cent felt that their well-being is enhanced when outdoors, and 95 per cent felt that their stress is reduced. The bad news? 29 per cent stated they spend less than half an hour outside each week (that’s less than five minutes daily), and 64 per cent spent less than 2 hours outside each week, leaving just 7 per cent of people spending more than two hours outdoors. If we’re all so confident in the benefits, why do we choose to spend only 1 per cent of our weeks reaping those benefits?  

Cognitive neuroscientist Dr. David Strayer has researched how nature helps to restore people’s mental states using EEGs to test theta frequencies before and after nature walks. Theta frequencies are linked to the anterior cingulate cortex which helps to coordinate multitasking – something that causes a lot of stress on the brain, and can lead to burnout. Everyone knows that stress isn’t “good” for prolonged periods of time, due in part to the way our prefrontal cortex – where our critical thinking and decision making are centered – can be fatigued by the constant multitasking that prolonged stress causes.  

Dr. Strayer measured people’s theta frequencies before and after taking a solo nature walk. He had half the walkers leave their phones with him while they strolled to avoid distraction, and half were to call a friend and talk while they walked. After the walk everyone’s theta frequencies were tested again, and the group sent without their phones showed lowered theta activity – their actual physical brain had rested. They hadn’t taken any medication, they weren’t walking in a different/more-serene area, they weren’t meditating to reach a higher level of relaxation. The simple truth is despite our industrialization, we humans are still an animal species wired to feel relief in the familiar. Our neural evolution hasn’t quite caught up with our urbanization so to truly rest our brains, natural settings do wonders.

The upsides of spending time in nature are clear, and researchers continue to find more specific benefits. Now the question is, what do we do with this information? Neuroscience is slowly giving us a handbook on the human brain that, ideally, we can use to prevent negative impacts from occurring instead of having to treat after the fact. Being aware of the benefits isn’t enough; we have to start putting knowledge into practice, and we have to start treating mental health as a priority rather than a luxury.  

Shae Sackman, the president of the Psychology Students Association at the U of R, had the following to say in regards to what the University itself can do to contribute to student mental health: 

“The U of R and most mental health services operate in a reactionary way. A student seeks service, a student navigates the process to receive service, and counselling begins. Asking Counselling Services to navigate the influx of students requiring counselling while also figuring out how to be more proactive is unrealistic and not really their burden to bear. The University of Regina needs to consider a more proactive and holistic approach to supporting their students. Counselling is not the only solution. Identifying things that are eroding the coping skills and mental health of students would save time, money, and potentially lives.”  

 Spending time in nature is not a mental health panacea, but it can help. In her TEDx talk, “Prescribing Nature for Health,” Dr. Nooshin Razani talks about the experience of awe. She defines awe as a combination of fear, happiness, and pleasure, and said that after experiencing awe people are more empathetic and their symptoms of anxiety and/or depression are lessened. She then outlined the changes a person experiences with time spent in a forest. In minutes, breathing and heart rate slow, and cortisol levels decrease. In roughly 20 minutes people have a better attention span and are able to solve more difficult cognitive tasks. After three days, the prefrontal cortex reaches a sort of “peak-relaxation” where people are at their highest productive and creative potential.  

Now most of us do not have the luxury to escape to a forest for three days every time we’re feeling burnt out – that’s not realistic for our schedules or bank accounts. Thankfully, Janelle Gerard in her honours project at the U of R found that immersing oneself in nature for just five minutes will increase “transcendent emotions” – one of which is awe. To make that more impressive, Gerard did the research for her study from October to March, so these benefits can still occur even in our frigid Saskie winters. 

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