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HIGH LIFE A WEEKLY FORUM FOR HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS : Mother Nature Provides Way to Ease Stress

August 11, 1989|KATHLEEN DOHENY and "There will be a rain dance Friday, weather permitting." and --George Carlin

Even the briefest exposure to nature can reduce stress, according to findings by Roger Ulrich, an associate dean in the College of Architecture at Texas A&M University.

Even more surprising to Ulrich was how quickly brief bursts of nature work. In some cases, stressed-out subjects relaxed after only three minutes of nature viewing.

In their study, Ulrich and his colleague, University of Delaware psychologist Robert Simons, showed 120 students a graphic, 10-minute accident film. Before and after the film, viewers' stress levels were evaluated, using such standard measures as blood pressure, muscle tension and heart rate, along with a self-rating of stress.

Next, students viewed a videotape of a nature or urban scene for 10 minutes. One nature scene showed a peaceful river, the other a forest. The urban scenes depicted a street with heavy traffic, a street with light traffic, an outdoor mall with many pedestrians and an outdoor mall with few pedestrians. Viewers' stress levels were again evaluated.

"Participants recovered more quickly and more completely from stress when exposed to either of the nature settings than to the urban settings," Ulrich says. "By the end of 10 minutes, people who viewed the nature scenes were as relaxed or sometimes even more relaxed than before viewing the accident film."

Another study of 102 subjects by UC Irvine social ecologists confirms Ulrich's findings. A third of the participants engaged in passive relaxation, reading magazines and listening to music; a third walked in an urban area, and a third walked in a regional park. The natural setting produced the most positive emotional effects, with park walkers, for instance, exhibiting more happiness than others.

The practical implications of the research? "It's not as if this stress-reduction effect of nature takes a lot of time," Ulrich says. "Even short-term views of nature--trees through the office window, an atrium in the coffee-break room--may produce relaxation effects that help urbanites cope with daily annoyances."

Ulrich is uncertain why nature has such powerful effects. But he speculates that humans may be innately predisposed to react positively to it and that they associate it with vacations and other pleasant experiences.

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