Stop stress by taking a walk and enjoying the sounds of nature

Science proves it: Listening to nature sounds affects our body’s responses — particularly our “flight-or-fight” mechanism — and makes us more relaxed and less stressed.

Researchers at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS) concluded that “natural sounds” affect the autonomous nervous system, especially those related to our flight-or-fight and rest-digest responses. Additionally, researchers noted an increased level of resting activity of the brain. The study, published in Scientific Reports, confirmed that spending only a few minutes outside, or just listening to an audio of nature sounds, can dramatically decrease stress levels.

Lead author, Dr. Cassandra Gould van Praag noted in an article published on Science Daily that “we are all familiar with the feeling of relaxation and ‘switching-off’ which comes from a walk in the countryside, and now we have evidence from the brain and the body which helps us understand this effect. This had been an exciting collaboration between artists and scientists, and it has produced results which may have a real-life impact, particularly for people who are experiencing high levels of stress.”

Dr. Gould van Praag and her team collaborated with audio visual artist Mark Ware, and studied 17 healthy adults using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Participants listened to a series of five-minute soundscapes of natural and man-made environments. While listening to these various sounds, participants were asked to perform a series of tasks to measure their attention and reaction time. Heart rates were also monitored, to record any changes in their autonomic nervous system (i.e. breathing, blood pressure, metabolism, digestion, and temperature).

The results showed that each soundscape corresponded to different levels of activity in the areas of the brain associated with mind-wandering and “task-free” states of wakefulness. Specifically, artificial sounds correlated with patterns of inward-focused attention whereas natural sounds yielded a more external-focused attention.

“Innie” or “Outie”?

Inward-focused attention is associated with worrying and thinking about things specific to one’s self. These patterns are linked to various psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or any complex that involves inward stress. Participants who are inwardly-attuned showed slower reaction times as well.

Those who were more externally-focused — or rather, those who were listening to natural sounds — showed a decrease in their bodies’ sympathetic responses (the flight-or-fight response) and an increase in their parasympathetic response (the rest-digest response which helps the body relax and function).

The results varied though. Participants who began the study with the highest sympathetic responses (suggestive of high levels of stress) registered the most dramatic improvements from the nature sounds. Those who started with low levels of sympathetic responses only had a slight decrease when listening to the natural sounds.

“I would definitely recommend a walk in natural surroundings to anyone, whether they’re currently feeling frazzled or not. Even a few minutes of escape could be beneficial,” stated Dr. Gould van Praag in an e-mail published on Health. She goes on to say that if actual physical wandering is not possible, there are several apps that can be downloaded which feature short audio clips of nature sounds. She concluded with the advice that not all apps are the same, and the type of sound to be used varies per person. For example, an audio recording of the rainforest may only have a strong relaxing effect to those familiar with rainforests.

Dr. Gould van Praag ended with the reminder that high levels of stress can cause poor sleep. Simple, practical steps to reduce stress levels and improve sympathetic responses can promote better rest and strengthen the immune system.

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