Being Human 2012

The Science of Human Experience

Palace of Fine Arts / San Francisco, CA March 24, 2012 9am - 5:30pm

Stressed Out? Head to the Woods

Posted on Friday, February 17, 2012 at 12PM

Imagine taking a leisurely, relaxed walk through a beautiful and verdant woodland. Relaxing, isn't it? Many researchers have argued for the existence of a phenomenon known as biophilia, or a love of nature hardwired into the human brain. A new study reinforces this hypothesis, showing that the lack of green space in a community correlates with higher levels of stress, chronic fatigue, and anxiety in its denizens.

Researchers measured levels of cortisol—the stress hormone—in saliva samples taken from a mixed group of adults. They found that, in general, those who lived in communities where less than 30 percent of the area was green space had higher levels of cortisol than those whose neighborhoods were greener. Additionally, when asked, those volunteers living in areas with more green space verbally reported being less stressed in general than those living in less green areas. Though exercise also reduced stress, the benefit of nearby green space showed in the results regardless of how much exercise the subject got.

The study shows that for every one percent increase in green space there was a corresponding — and steeper — decline in stress levels. Where there is more green space, people tend to respond better to disruptive events, either by not getting as stressed in the first place or by coping better, researchers said.

Biophilia is controversial; its proponents argue that a love of nature and living things would have evolved in our distant ancestors and survived in us, a hypothesis that is somewhat difficult to test. However, if it's true, it would help to explain the results of this study. When we lose access to nature, our deep-seated bond with it becomes strained, leaving us stressed and anxious. So, the next time you're feeling wound-up, take a walk in the woods. It might do you good.

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