A walk on the wild side will chill you out

4 minute read

An hour spent in nature has measurable effects on stress regions in the brain.

The one simple trick to lasting happiness, as any viewer of the beloved Aussie television show Sea Change knows, is having a break from the city.  

Finding yourself a Diver Dan doesn’t hurt either. 

Sadly, the boffins still haven’t yet figured out how to recreate my dream man from a grainy television drama, but they have set to work understanding why an escape into nature makes us feel so much better.  

Is there a causal relationship between a walk in nature and a drop in stress? Or is there something else at play with both (like the ability to look at loveable layabouts in half undressed wetsuits)?  

“Since living in cities is associated with an increased risk for mental disorders such as anxiety disorders, depression, and schizophrenia, it is essential to understand how exposure to urban and natural environments affects mental health and the brain,” the authors of a paper in Molecular Psychiatry wrote coyly.  

This is particularly important given two in three global citizens currently live in cities.   

To find out more, the researchers randomly assigned 63 healthy adults to walk for an hour in either a busy urban street, or in a forested natural track.  

But before and after both walks, the scientists showed each participant pictures of fearful and neutral faces and measured the activation of their amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for fear, anxiety and stress. 

The fMRI scans revealed that while activation remained the same in those who walked in the busy city streets, those who walked in nature actually had a drop off in amygdala activation compared to before they tied up their laces.  

“We interpret this as evidence showing that nature is indeed able to restore individuals from stress, and as a lack of evidence that the administered urban exposure additionally heightens amygdala activity,” the authors wrote.  

Participants who went on a nature walk also said they enjoyed it more than those who walked in the busy streets. Although I’d like to see another version of this study that included charity muggers leaping from the shrubbery in the nature walk…just to control for all variables.  

“Even though urbanization has many advantages, living in a city is a well-known risk factor for mental health,” the authors said. “Mental health problems like anxiety, mood disorders, major depression, and schizophrenia are up to 56% more common in urban compared to rural environments. 

“It has been suggested that urban upbringing is the most important environmental factor for developing schizophrenia, accounting for more than 30% of schizophrenia incidence.  

“Since there is a consistent dose-response relationship between schizophrenia and urban environment, even when controlling for possible confounders such as sociodemographic factors, family history, drug abuse, and size of social network, the hypothesis is that urban environment is related to higher schizophrenia incidence through increased social stress.”  

The authors said the findings may underscore the need to make green areas a higher priority in urban planning, to improve the mental health of residents.  

“These results suggest that going for a walk in nature can have salutogenic effects on stress-related brain regions, and consequently, it may act as a preventive measure against mental strain and potentially disease,” they wrote.  

But don’t worry, you can use this article like a doctor’s note to convince your boss to let you work from a commune secluded in the hinterland behind Byron Bay, or your very own Pearl Bay.  

If you see a weird story, or just have a great hidden beach recommendation, message penny@medicalrepublic.com.au   

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