Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments

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Different conceptual perspectives converge to predict that if individuals are stressed, an encounter with most unthreatening natural environments will have a stress reducing or restorative influence, whereas many urban environments will hamper recuperation. Hypotheses regarding emotional, attentional and physiological aspects of stress reducing influences of nature are derived from a psycho-evolutionary theory. To investigate these hypotheses, 120 subjects first viewed a stressful movie, and then were exposed to color/sound videotapes of one of six different natural and urban settings. Data concerning stress recovery during the environmental presentations were obtained from self-ratings of affective states and a battery of physiological measures: heart period, muscle tension, skin conductance and pulse transit time, a non-invasive measure that correlates with systolic blood pressure. Findings from the physiological and verbal measures converged to indicate that recovery was faster and more complete when subjects were exposed to natural rather than urban environments. The pattern of physiological findings raised the possibility that responses to nature had a salient parasympathetic nervous system component; however, there was no evidence of pronounced parasympathetic involvement in responses to the urban settings. There were directional differences in cardiac responses to the natural vs urban settings, suggesting that attention/intake was higher during the natural exposures. However, both the stressor film and the nature settings elicited high levels of involuntary or automatic attention, which contradicts the notion that restorative influences of nature stem from involuntary attention or fascination. Findings were consistent with the predictions of the psycho-evolutionary theory that restorative influences of nature involve a shift towards a more positively-toned emotional state, positive changes in physiological activity levels, and that these changes are accompanied by sustained attention/intake. Content differences in terms of natural vs human-made properties appeared decisive in accounting for the differences in recuperation and perceptual intake.

Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments