By Dr. Mercola
Many feel an intrinsic pull to spend time in nature and this makes perfect sense. Your brain and body are largely hard-wired to sync with nature — the rising and setting of the sun and the changing of the seasons, for example.
I personally find my 90-minute daily beach walks, where I can hear the ocean surf, capture the sunshine on my skin and practice deep breathing exercises in the clean ocean air, to be one of life's gifts that I am most grateful for.
It's no wonder then that when our senses get to take in nature at its finest — the sounds of a babbling brook, the scent of lush earth in a forest preserve or even the sight of a green oasis in the middle of a city — it sets off a cascade of physical and psychological benefits.
Nature sounds are frequently used for meditation, as the sounds of insects, birds, wind and flowing water are known to induce a state of calm. Now, science explains the "how" behind this influence.
How Nature Sounds Help You Relax
Participants listened to two different types of sound — nature sounds and sounds from a manmade artificial environment — while lying in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner that measured their brain activity.
During each five-minute soundscape, they also performed tasks designed to measure attention and reaction time. Nature sounds produced brain activity associated with outward-directed focus, whereas artificial sounds created brain activity associated with inward-directed focus.
The latter, which can express itself as worry and rumination about things related to your own self, is a trait associated with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Nature sounds also produced higher rest-digest nervous system activity, which occurs when your body is in a relaxed state. External attentional monitoring tasks and mental concentration also improved.
Importantly, participants performed best on tasks requiring attention when listening to nature sounds that they were familiar with. This, the researchers contend, highlights the importance of being selective when purchasing a sound app, CD or environmental sound machine.
If you're unfamiliar with rainforest monsoons or chirping crickets, such sounds may not be as relaxing to you as the sounds of wind through trees, waves crashing on a beach or bird song.
Overall, nature sounds also had the greatest effect on those who were the most stressed. Lead author Cassandra Gould van Praag, Ph.D., said:
"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 has been an exciting collaboration between artists and scientists, and it has produced results which may have a real-world impact, particularly for people who are experiencing high levels of stress …4
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."5
Nature Sounds Speed Recovery From Psychological Stress
Previous research6 has also demonstrated that listening to nature sounds helps you recover faster after a stressful event. Here, subjects were exposed to nature sounds or the sound of a noisy environment after performing a stressful mathematical task.
Skin conductance level was used to measure sympathetic activation (fight-or-flight response) and high frequency heart rate variability was used to measure parasympathetic activation (relaxation response).
When nature sounds were played, the sympathetic nervous system recovery was faster, suggesting it facilitates recovery from sympathetic activation after a psychological stressor.
Research into the physical and emotional effects of sound actually goes back decades. As noted in the study just mentioned:7
"In 1984, Ulrich demonstrated that patients whose windows faced a park recovered faster compared with patients whose windows faced a brick wall.
Since then, several studies have demonstrated restorative effects of natural compared with urban environments; these effects include increased well-being, decreased negative affect and decreased physiological stress responses.
Ulrich suggested that natural environments have restorative effects by inducing positive emotional states, decreased physiological activity and sustained attention.
This agrees with Kaplan and Kaplan's theory that nature environments facilitate recovery of directed attention capacity and thereby reducing mental fatigue, and with results showing that positive emotions improves physiological recovery after stress."
City Life Linked to Anxiety and Mood Disorders
Researchers from the Douglas Mental Health University Institute at McGill University in Canada set out to determine whether changes in neural processes might be responsible for these findings.
They used fMRI to monitor the brains of 32 healthy adults asked to complete difficult math problems while being timed and hearing negative verbal responses. Those who lived in urban environments had increased activity in the amygdala area of the brain, which is involved in emotions such as fear and responses to threats.
Those who lived in cities during the first 15 years of their life also had increased activity in the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex, which helps to regulate the amygdala. In short, those who grew up in an urban environment had a greater sensitivity to stress.
In an accompanying editorial, Daniel Kennedy, Ph.D., and Ralph Adolphs, Ph.D., both of the California Institute of Technology, explained that city living likely affects everyone differently, and your level of autonomy may play a role in how stressful it is for you:10
"There are wide variations in individuals' preferences for, and ability to cope with, city life: [S]ome thrive in New York City; others would happily swap it for a desert island. Psychologists have found that a substantial factor accounting for this variability is the perceived degree of control that people have over their daily lives.
Social threat, lack of control and subordination are all likely candidates for mediating the stressful effects of city life, and probably account for much of the individual differences seen."
Should you find yourself in a city, struggling to keep stress at bay, you may want to consider seeking out parks, creating a natural sanctuary on your balcony or rooftop, or even indoors, using plants and an environmental sound machine. YouTube also has a number of very long videos of natural sounds, such as the one featured above. You could simply turn it on and leave it on while you're indoors.
Your Breath Also Affects Your Stress
Another way to release stress and trigger your relaxation response is through breath work. Many breathing experts agree that 9 out of 10 people breathe poorly, which can have ramifications for both your physical and psychological health. Shallow breathing activates your sympathetic response, which is involved in releasing cortisol and other stress hormones.
Controlled deep breathing — known as pranayama in yoga — on the other hand, helps trigger your relaxation response as it activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn slows down your heart rate and digestion while promoting a state of calm. Modern research suggests the benefits of controlled breathing are real and may improve health conditions ranging from insomnia and anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
Controlled breathing exercises have also been found to modify stress-coping behaviors and initiate appropriate balance in cardiac autonomic tone, which is a term that describes your heart's ability to respond to and recover from stressors.11 Scientists at Stanford University have also mapped out the connections between your breath and your thoughts, behaviors and feelings. As reported by The New York Times:12
"[H]ow the mind and body regulate breathing and vice versa at the cellular level has remained largely mysterious. More than 25 years ago, researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles first discovered a small bundle of about 3,000 interlinked neurons inside the brainstems of animals, including people, that seem to control most aspects of breathing. They dubbed these neurons the breathing pacemaker."
Stanford Scientists Reveal Why Deep, Slow Breathing Is so Calming
Now, scientists have started using new genetic techniques to probe individual neurons within this breathing pacemaker. So far, they've identified 65 different types of neurons in this area, which are thought to regulate different aspects of breathing. One of these neuron types, when disabled, prevented mice from getting stressed out when placed in unfamiliar surroundings. The article explains:
"It turned out that the particular neurons in question showed direct biological links to a portion of the brain that is known to be involved in arousal. This area sends signals to multiple other parts of the brain that, together, direct us to wake up, be alert and, sometimes, become anxious or frantic.
In the mellow mice, this area of the brain remained quiet. 'What we think was going on was that the disabled neurons normally would detect activity in other neurons within the pacemaker that regulate rapid breathing and sniffing,' says Dr. Kevin Yackle … who … led the study.
The disabled neurons would then alert the brain that something potentially worrisome was going on with the mouse since it was sniffing, and the brain should start ramping up the machinery of worry and panic. So a few tentative sniffs could result in a state of anxiety that, in a rapid feedback loop, would make the animal sniff more and become increasingly anxious …
[W]ithout that mechanism, it would remain tranquil … The implication of this work … is that taking deep breaths is calming because it does not activate the neurons that communicate with the brain's arousal center."
Breathing Exercise to Control Anxiety
Whether you breathe through your mouth or your nose also has important health implications, with the latter being far preferable. The Buteyko Breathing Method helps to reverse health problems associated with improper breathing, the most common of which are overbreathing and mouth breathing. Typical characteristics of overbreathing include mouth breathing, upper chest breathing, sighing, noticeable breathing during rest and taking large breaths prior to talking.
When you stop mouth breathing and learn to bring your breathing volume down toward normal, you have better oxygenation of your tissues and organs, including your brain. Controlling anxiety and quelling panic attacks is one of the areas where the Buteyko Method can be quite useful.
If you're experiencing anxiety or panic attacks, or if you feel very stressed and your mind can't stop racing, try the following breathing technique. This sequence helps retain and gently accumulate carbon dioxide, leading to calmer breathing and reduced anxiety. In other words, the urge to breathe will decline as you enter a more relaxed state:
- Take a small breath into your nose, followed by a small breath out
- Then hold your nose for five seconds in order to hold your breath, and then release your nose to resume breathing
- Breathe normally for 10 seconds
- Repeat the sequence
Breathe Well, Sleep Well, Live Well
I recently interviewed Belisa Vranich, a clinical psychologist and author of "Breathe," in which she shares a breathing program she developed that can help improve your physical and mental health in a short amount of time. The full interview will be published on Sunday, April 23. I've included a condensed version of the interview above.
Vranish accurately views breathing as a cornerstone of good health, noting that changing the way you breathe can improve your sleep and eating habits, lower inflammation, improve gastrointestinal (GI) function, increase longevity and reduce pain.
There are two basic breathing styles: vertical and horizontal breathing. Most people breathe vertically. This type of breathing makes you feel a bit taller on the in-breath, as it raises your chest and shoulders, which actually triggers your sympathetic nervous system, essentially signaling your body that you're stressed out. As noted by Vranich, "If you're not already in a stressed-out state, it's going to make you more stressed."
Correct breathing will cause your midsection to widen, while not raising your shoulders or puffing out the upper part of your chest. At first, you may find it difficult to take a proper breath, as your midsection may be too tight. An exercise that uses exaggerated motions to relearn proper breathing is as follows:
- Begin by relaxing and unbracing your midsection.
- Take a deep breath in and actually feel the middle of your body get wider.
- Let your belly go.
- Then, on the exhale, roll backward, tipping your hips underneath you while pressing your fingers gently into your belly, giving it a little squeeze.
- Eventually, this will teach your body to use the diaphragm to breathe.
She also points out that, oftentimes, feeling short of breath is due to insufficient exhalation leaving excess residual air in your lungs. Engaging your diaphragm and intercostals — the muscles that run between your ribs, allowing your chest wall to move — will allow you to take more complete in and out breaths. For more pointers on healthy breathing, please listen to the full interview this coming Sunday.
3 Steps to Proper Breathing
While taking big, deep breaths is commonly recommended by yoga teachers and others, this can actually be counterproductive. Ideally, you want your breathing to be very calm and light — so light that the hairs in your nose barely move.
This type of breathing, which is part of the Buteyko school of thought, helps you to enter and remain in a calm, meditative state while lowering your blood pressure and reducing nasal congestion for easier breathing. The following three steps will help your breath become lighter with practice.
- Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your belly. Your belly should move slightly in and out with each breath, and your midsection should get wider, while your chest should remain unmoving.
- Close your mouth and breathe in and out through your nose. Focus your attention on the cold air coming into your nose and the slightly warmer air leaving it on the out breath.
- Slowly decrease the volume of each breath, to the point it feels like you're almost not breathing at all (you'll notice your breath getting very quiet at this point). The crucial thing here is to develop a slight air hunger. This simply means there's a slight accumulation of carbon dioxide in your blood, which signals your brain to breathe.
You may feel a slight air shortage at first, but this should be tolerable. If it becomes uncomfortable, take a 15-second break and then continue. After three or four minutes of air hunger, you'll start experiencing the beneficial effects of CO2 accumulation, such as an increase in body temperature and an increase in saliva. The former is a sign of improved blood circulation; the latter a sign that your parasympathetic nervous system has been activated, which is important for stress reduction.