Nature Can Cure Overthinking, According to Science

a nature scene

It works even if you can’t physically go outside.

I have been on coronavirus lockdown for several weeks.

I had thought that, as an introvert, I would be in my element at home. I would help my extroverted partner appreciate the benefits of a quiet lifestyle. We would engage in long, significant discussions, listen to music, read books, and sit on the balcony in the evening with a glass of wine.

No way!

A very social person, she couldn’t give up her need for non-stop engagement with friends and family. It was one Zoom session after another. Relatives and acquaintances who we hadn’t been in touch with for years were suddenly daily visitors to the screen in our living room.

Rather than enjoying some peace and quiet, my sanctuary of tranquility had been violated. Don’t get me wrong — I love my wife. But the noise of the extrovert world had been brought right into my home, and my stress levels were becoming unbearable. 

As a response, I found myself thinking more and more about my childhood days, spent in the forest near my home. I remember it as a soft and welcoming place, a refuge from stressful home life. I would go fishing in the forest ponds, spending whole days at the water’s edge. Other days, I would wander far and wide, searching for animal tracks.

So, long before I had any inkling of what it meant to be an introvert, I had instinctively found a way to escape from the anxiety and stress of my everyday life. 

Science Proves We Need Nature

What I learned by instinct as a child is now confirmed by science. An ever-growing body of research suggests that the changes in our brains resulting from a walk in the forest can reduce depression. In other words, spending time in nature can be a form of therapy — something we could all probably use right now.

A study by Gregory N. Bratman and others found that a 90-minute walk in a natural setting decreased both self-reported rumination (focused attention on the symptoms of one’s distress) and neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex (an area of the brain associated with mood disorders). 

Or in less scientific language, a stroll in nature reduces overthinking.

Why Introverts Overthink

As introverts, many of us have a tendency to overthink. Research has shown that introverts have a higher level of electrical activity in their brains than extroverts, with greater arousal in the cerebrum, the part of the brain that integrates complex sensory and neural functions.

In fact, these differences in the brain may be essential to the definition of an introvert. This greater brain activity means that, as introverts, we process more information than extroverts in any given situation. We need to rest from this tiring mental activity, and nature provides us with the perfect environment to reduce information overload and digest the information we have in our heads. 

However, we really don’t need scientific research to tell us that a walk in the forest is a pleasurable experience. After all, many people instinctively search out places of natural beauty when planning vacations.

However, providing a scientific justification is important for another reason: It enables health professionals to take this on board. For example, in the Shetland Isles of Scotland, doctors can now prescribe nature to their patients to reduce blood pressure and anxiety, and increase happiness.

Nature as a Cure for Lack of Attention

Along with feelings of anxiety and depression, many of us are also struggling to focus on our work or creative projects right now. Known as Directed Attention Fatigue (DAF), this neuro-psychological phenomenon results when the brain gets overwhelmed by distractions while focusing on a specific task, leading to feelings of impatience, forgetfulness, and irritation. 

You may recognize the symptoms of DAF in yourself. Anyone — introvert or extrovert — will find it difficult to concentrate if they are being distracted by noise or other interruptions, but we introverts have a heightened sensitivity to noise and other sensory input. This means we often find it difficult to concentrate in a busy environment, such as an open-plan office, where our extroverted colleagues may have an easier time keeping focused. 

In their 1980s book, The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective, Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, environmental psychologists at the University of Michigan, suggested that nature could be a cure for DAF. The Kaplans devised the Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which says that a person is better able to focus after spending time in nature — or even looking at pictures of it. Natural environments are rich in “soft fascinations,” such as clouds moving across the sky or leaves rustling in the breeze, which a person can take in with “effortless attention.”

So, with my stress levels out of control, I decided to put the theory to the test.

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I Put the Theory to the Test

Unless you live in a rural environment, surrounded by green pastures and nature, or have access to a nearby park, theories of nature therapy are not very helpful. This is even more true now when we are restricted to our homes. In some parts of the world, such as Spain, residents aren’t even allowed to go outside for exercise!

However, all is not lost. The Kaplans suggest that just looking at scenes of nature has a beneficial effect, which means even during lockdown we can reap some benefits of nature therapy, even if a walk outside is not possible. This was confirmed by studies conducted on students at Indiana University.

When I became stressed and in need of a break, I ran a search on YouTube and found many clips showing scenes of a forest or running water. I put on my headphones and watched for a while. I found that this caused my stress levels to plummet and my powers of concentration to shoot up. My experience thus confirms the ART assertion that scenes of nature have a positive effect, even when the real nature is not available.

How You Can Do It

Based on my experience, I recommend the following:

  1. Create a daily routine where you spend time looking at YouTube clips of nature, with natural sounds such as bird song or running water. Here is one of my favorites. I do this at least three times a day for at least 5 minutes, and make sure I do nothing else during these “nature meditation sessions.”
  2. When working at your computer, have a clip with the sounds of nature playing in the background. I find this helps me concentrate. My favorite sounds are rain or bird song. They seem to enter my subconscious and create a feeling of security. 
  3. At any time, if you find yourself overthinking (concentrating on something that is causing anxiety or stress), open up YouTube and spend some minutes looking at a scene of nature. 
  4. If you have photos of nature, display them in a location where you can look up and see a relaxing scene. If you have a spare screen or TV, you could display nature scenes.

 Let the Forest Restore Your Equilibrium

We should all spend more time in nature, and if you can do that right now, you should. But even if you can’t get away, open YouTube, put on those headphones, and let the sights and sounds of the forest restore your equilibrium.

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