Attention Restoration Therapy and Stress.

“Live in the sunshine. Swim in the sea. Drink in the wild air.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

There are lots of things that converge in the summertime to make us feel better. Things tend to be quieter at work, maybe we take vacation and de-stress, there is more daylight, and often more sunshine. Each of these things are known to improve mood and to help restore wellbeing when it wanes.

One thing we tend to overlook in our efforts to look after our health — both physical and mental — is the amount of time spent outside. There is more research emerging that shows the importance of natural environments to our wellbeing. Whether that time is passed in a garden, at the beach, walking in fields or at the park, or sitting in your backyard listening to birds, exposure to nature seems to benefit our health.

One theory that explains some of this effect is called “Attention Restoration Theory” or ART . ART suggests that not only is spending time in natural environments important for well-being, it also has the capacity to relieve stress and to restore our ability to focus or concentrate. There are now many research studies that confirm the theory.

For example, researchers have found that just having some green space around one’s home can help protect people from the negative health impacts of stress and stressful life events. In one study , those with a high amount of green space around their home were less affected by a stressful life event and reported greater perceived mental health than those with little or no green space nearby.

In another study of women managing breast cancer, spending time in natural, restorative environments resulted in improved ability to concentrate, higher likelihood to go back to work after treatment, and greater gains in quality of life compared to those who did not spend time in natural environments. Depression has also been found to improve with time in natural environments.

For those readers who are interested in reading more about the evidence for ART, Rita Berto has written an interesting and informative overview. In her article, Berto shows how natural environments play a role in our ability to cope with stress, offering us physical, emotional, and attention restoration. As Louv noted “as part of our evolutionary heritage, human beings—both children and adults—have a profound need for time in wild, outdoor spaces, and we suffer when we don’t get it.”

Are all experiences in nature equal?

Not all experiences are equal in their capacity to be restorative, however. There are four characteristics of natural spaces that seem to be necessary for them to work:

  1. Being Away
    First is the idea that the natural space we are in must allow us to be “away” from our usual activities, but not because we are “trying” to be away. Rather, our usual concerns seem to fade away or recede into the background.
  2. Soft Fascination
    The idea of “soft fascination” explains why our usual lives fade away – the environment that we are in holds our attention but without effort. Soft fascination allows us to be “in the moment”, fully present. It is that awe-inspiring element that the best of nature evokes in us. This is why cutting the lawn doesn’t count —it is too goal driven, requiring directed attention, rather than the “soft” attention, awe, or fascination of, for example, a beautiful sunset.
  3. Extension
    The most restorative environments need to be safe and somewhat familiar. They
    allow our attention to wander through them in a relaxed, cohesive way —there is a flow to the experience.
  4. Compatibility
    Environments that are restorative are those that we enjoy. We are there because we want to be; the space is compatible with our interests and desires. If the motivation is external . . . someone else wants us to be there but we don’t enjoy it . . . it is unlikely to be restorative.
  5. How much is enough?
    A study recently published in Scientific Reports has provided us with some idea about how much time in natural environments is enough for well-being. In this large study, the researchers found that people who spent at least 120 minutes a week in nature were significantly more likely to report good health and psychological well-being than those who didn’t spend any time in nature or those who spend less than 2 hours. More than 20,000 people participated in the study and the results did not vary between men and women, for older people or younger, those who were well-to-do or less so, and across different ethnic and occupational groups. Those who were living with disabilities and chronic illness also benefited. It did not seem to matter whether the two hours was obtained in one trip or in many smaller ones throughout the week.

What Does All This Mean for You?

Health professionals may soon move to making recommendations about exposure to natural environments, just like they do for physical activity. In the meantime, consider how much time you and your loved ones spend in natural environments. If that time has been more limited, summer is a good time to develop a new habit. Perhaps, once established, that habit can extend to other seasons. When its really frigid though, mediating on images of nature can have similar benefits. As Thoreau said: “One must maintain a little bit of summer, even in the middle of winter.”

Resources

[1] Kaplan S, & Kaplan R. (1982).  Cognition and Environment. New York, NY: Praeger.

[2] Van den Berg, A. E., Maas, J., Verheij, R. A., & Groenewegen, P. P. (2010). Green space as a buffer between stressful life events and health. Social science & medicine70(8), 1203-1210.

[3] Cimprich B. (1993). Development of an intervention to restore attention in cancer patients. Cancer Nursing, 16, 83-92; Cimprich, B., & Ronis, D. L. (2003). An environmental intervention to restore attention in women with newly diagnosed breast cancer. Cancer nursing26(4), 284-292.

[4] Martinsen, E. W. (2009). Therapeutic horticulture in clinical depression: A prospective study. Research and theory for nursing practice23(4), 312.

[5] Berto, R. (2014). The role of nature in coping with psycho-physiological stress: a literature review on restorativeness. Behavioral sciences4(4), 394-409. https://www.mdpi.com/2076-328X/4/4/394

[6] Louv, R. (2008). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Algonquin books.

[7] Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. CUP Archive.

[8] White, M. P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J., Wheeler, B. W., Hartig, T., Warber, S. L., … & Fleming, L. E. (2019). Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Scientific reports9(1), 7730.