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This is the quickest way to de-stress – and it's free

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Anna Brech
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A woman walking in the countryside

Feeling strung out by the demands of modern life? There’s a simple and quick solution that’s often overlooked

There’s no magic cure to chronic stress but certain habits can offer quick relief in the moment. A new thought piece in Psychology Today highlights one of the most simple – and potent – of these. 

Author and happiness expert Polly Campbell notes that even a very brief immersion in nature is enough to provide a snapshot of perspective, and make life easier to bear. And this is something we can seek out regardless of where we’re based.

“I get stressed out, locked in the urban environment, forgetting that I can actually walk barefoot in the grass, pack a picnic to take to the nature park, sit on the bank of a river or lake, stand on the porch and watch how the sunlight hits the leaves,” writes Campbell, who lives in the Oregon city of Beaverton.

“We’ve got to seek out those natural spaces and visit them the way we do our gym or grocery store. We’ve got to make time,” she adds. “When we do, even just a few minutes in the natural environment can elevate our life experience.”

Research shows that taking a stroll somewhere green for just 20 minutes a day is enough to significantly reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Academics from the University of Michigan found that spending this amount of time in a natural environment has a positive, measurable effect that balances the negative fallout from our indoor lifestyle. 

The only caveat is that participants in their study really had to unplug – disconnecting from social media, calls and even reading or conversations – in order to reap the benefits of the so-called “nature pill”.

If they did that, they didn’t even necessarily have to walk, but just sit and be, to reduce stress (although light exercise such as walking is an added boon for wellbeing).

People in a London park
Even brief exposure to nature is enough to significantly boost mood, studies show

For some time now, scientists have examined the idea that exposure to nature can be “prescribed” as an antidote to stress, in much the same way as medication, yoga or other mainstream solutions.

The impact of greenery is so strong that studies show living close to a park or a green space in cities alone is enough to lower stress levels; regardless of whether people actually use these places. Other research indicates that exposing patients to scenes of nature such as forests or waterfalls can help promote healing in hospitals. 

This paper from scientists at Chiba University in Japan demonstrates that 15 minutes walking in a forest brings about a set of powerful physiological responses, including a drop in heart rate and blood pressure, and an increased sensation of vigour.

Incidental encounters with nature have been shown to do everything from helping us to focus better to enhancing creativity. It’s not known exactly why this is, but researchers speculate that it chimes with an outdoor hunter-gatherer lifestyle from which we evolved, but have long since become separated from. 

Yet still, despite the mountain of evidence, we tend to underestimate how happy nature can make us; looking instead to more tangible activities.

A solution, says Campbell, is to consciously schedule nature into your day. Hold outdoor meetings, or pop to the park whenever you can; whether that’s on your lunch break, or via a walk to work. 

Then when you’re there, she says, make the most of it: submerse yourself fully in the moment and pay attention to the details of the landscape, uninterrupted by the calls of modern-day life. 

Images: Andrew Welch and Robert Bye on Unsplash

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.