Is a ‘Nature Pill’ the Cure for COVID19-Related Anxiety?

The scene yesterday at Pier A Park

I went in to my blog admin page to put together a Fabulous Links: Coronavirus Edition, and I came across the piece below in my drafts folder. Even though it’s originally dated May 19, 2019, it’s actually more relevant now, so I thought I’d share.

In the past three days, schools, gyms/yoga studios, day care centers, playgrounds, and the Hoboken Public Library have announced they are closing for at least two to four weeks. People have had to cancel or postpone events or vacations. It’s a scary time. Yet, the parks were packed yesterday (see photo above). People are basically taking a ‘nature pill’ to help them cope with COVID19-related anxiety.

Here is the original draft of the post I was planning. I have added some links.

You may have heard time spent outdoors can reduce stress, especially for busy residents of urban areas, like me. I know I feel refreshed and ready to tackle anything when I get back from a walk along the Hoboken waterfront with it’s incredible view of Manhattan.

However, doctors didn’t know exactly how to prescribe a so-called ‘nature pill’. The optimal dose for such a ‘nature experience’ (NE) was unclear.

Now scientists from the University of Michigan have found that 20 to 30 minutes of contact with nature could lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The researchers said theirs is the first study to establish an effective dose for an urban nature experience.

“Until now, it was unclear how much time in nature was enough, how often to do it, and even what kind of nature experience would best benefit us,” MaryCarol Hunter, lead author on the study, said in a statement. The researchers hope nature pills would be a low-cost solution to the negative health effects associated with urbanization and indoor, sedentary lifestyles involving screen time.

Take time outside

The researchers enrolled 36 city dwellers in their study. They asked participants to spend time at least three times per week over an eight-week period in a place that made them feel connected to nature. Each NE had to last 10 minutes or more.

Participants were free to choose the time of day, length, and location of their NE. “Building personal flexibility into the study design allowed us to identify the optimal duration of a nature pill, no matter where or when it is taken,” said Hunter, an associate professor at the University of Michigan. This flexible study design also accounted for participants’ hectic schedules and any unforeseen circumstances.

Nature pills had to be taken during daylight hours, and aerobic exercise was prohibited. Posting on social media, accessing the Internet, and taking phone calls during NEs was discouraged. These restrictions were intended to minimize factors known to increase stress.

Study participants provided a saliva sample before and after NEs every two weeks during the study. The pre-NE samples were taken to establish daily changes in levels of cortisol and the enzyme alpha-amylase.

The researchers found each NE was most efficient at reducing stress if it lasted between 20 and 30 minutes. After that, participants continued to accrue stress relief benefits, but at a slower rate.

“Healthcare practitioners can use our findings as an evidence-based rule of thumb about what to put in a nature pill prescription,” said Hunter. “Our experimental approach can be used as a tool to assess how age, gender, seasonality, physical ability, and culture influence the effect of NEs on well-being,” The study was published in Frontiers in Psychology.

The take home message here is that it helps to get outside, disconnect from whatever chaos is coming through on your news and social feeds, and reconnect with the rest of the world. (But remember social distancing, people!) Taking a nature pill reminds you that in some ways, life goes on as before.

So tell me. How are you coping with all the COVID19 madness? Are you cooking, baking, or doing crafts? I find blogging and photography are my therapy. Let’s talk stress relief in the comments!

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