Nature Has Charms That Can Reduce Stress

During a typical workday, Hawthorne pediatrician Edward Reis treats 30 patients, calms dozens of worried parents, encounters eardrum-splitting noise and anticipates late-night phone calls.

But no matter how harried the pace, Reis often takes a few seconds between appointments to glance at the ever-present vase of fresh-cut daisies and roses on his desk. And once he’s fought trafficand arrived at his Pacific Palisades home, he often tends his garden of flowers, herbs and vegetables. “Just looking at nature helps make me calm,” he says.

Los Angeles psychologist Gary Emery and USC editor Susan Heitman can relate. In between therapy sessions, Emery listens to tapes of Oregon waterfalls; Heitman just returned from a two-week escape to the wilds of Alaska.

And none of them have to persuade Roger Ulrich about the stress-busting effects of nature. In a recent study, Ulrich, an associate dean in the College of Architecture at Texas A & M University, found that even the briefest exposure to nature can reduce stress.

Even more surprising to Ulrich--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 the 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--who found in an earlier study that hospital patients with greenery views were discharged nearly a day earlier than those with views of brick walls--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.

Observes psychologist Emery: “It’s practically impossible to walk on the beach and be depressed.”

Bicycle Crashes

Every year, more than 600 children under age 15 die in bicycle-related crashes, research finds. And in more than 80% of cases, head trauma is involved. Still, bicycle helmets remain a hard sell. Fewer than 5% of kids wear them, several studies suggest.

To find out why, Boston researchers interviewed 42 fourth- through sixth-graders, publishing their findings recently in the American Journal of Diseases of Children. The students say they often don’t associate head injuries with bike crashes, thinking more often about the possibility of cuts, scrapes and limb injuries.

Few students expressed positive attitudes about wearing helmets, thinking others would make fun of them or think they’re “a weirdo.” But their comments changed, when asked what they thought of other helmet-wearing children, whom they called smart, safety-conscious or good.

“Perhaps the most significant findings were that children did not hold negative attitudes toward other children who wear helmets and that children were not resistant to the idea of mandatory helmet use,” says Jonathan Howland, a Boston University School of Public Health assistant professor ad study co-author. “Parents and pediatricians need to tell kids it’s OK to wear helmets, that other kids are going to secretly admire them.”

Other advice on helmet purchase and wear:

--Give the child a say. In the Boston study, certain colors and styles were preferred. Black was hot, as were teardrop styles seen in the movies; white helmets were out.

--For maximum safety, pick a hard over a soft shell, suggests Dr. William Boyle, a pediatrician in Hanover, Mass., and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Accident Prevention.

--Look for labels indicating the helmet meets the safety standards of the American National Standards Institute or the Snell Foundation.

--Anticipate savings soon. The price on children’s bike helmets, now ranging from $17 to $50, may decline in the next few months, partly because of promotions by manufacturers and consumer groups, Boyle says.