Write It On Your Heart (& Brain)

Throughout history, word-workers and story-makers have been sharing their experiences on the stimulating effects of pen-and-paper writing. For instance, memoirist and fiction writer Robert Stone said of his pen use and mental clarity, “On a typewriter or word processor, you can rush something that shouldn’t be rushed–you can lose nuance, richness, lucidity. The pen compels lucidity” (Bruce 59). American philosopher Sidney Hook commented on writing and thought-salience, “The gravity of my thoughts seems to me to be in correlations with the pressure I put on my pen. When I type something, it always seems to be superficial because it seems to come off the top of my mind” (Bruce 58). In a similar way, novelist Anne Taylor noted that the muscular movement of writing with a pen put her imagination back on the right track (Brice 2010).

While famous writers’ tender musings on their craft may be nice to think about, is there any truth to the mental benefits of writing by hand for those of us who do not write for a living? Neuroscience says, “Yes!” Dr. Claudia Aguirre, neuroscientist and writer for the popular meditation app Headspace, explains that the physical formation of letter characters activates neural pathways that otherwise go untouched (Aguirre, 2017). 

In the realm of cognitive function, a body of research demonstrates the necessity for children at the pre-literacy level to practice and learn handwriting. Actually learning to form characters, rather than tracing or typing, is linked to the skill of literacy. One 2017 study on the development of the literate brain explained this link in terms of the relationship between the visual and motor systems in the brain (Karin 2017). The action of handwriting helps bring about letter recognition by serving as a bridge between motor experience and visual processing (Karin 2017). 

The writing practice of Chinese calligraphy has been explored across a variety of behavioral health contexts and shown to have positive effects on the cognitive states of people with Alzheimer’s disease and ADHD as well as the emotional well being of people with depression and cancer. One 2017 study showed how a calligraphic handwriting practice reduced physiological signs of stress just as well as a sitting-meditation practice (Kao, et al. 2014)

Writing has also shown to be an effective clinical intervention in some contexts. Several studies demonstrate the efficacy of written disclosure, or expressive writing, on the reduction of PTSD symptoms. In written disclosure, the client writes in three twenty-minute sessions on the content of their trauma, the associated thoughts and feelings, and a wrap-up. For instance, one study demonstrated that participants with PTSD who practiced written disclosure experienced decreases in dysphoria and physiological activation, as well as an increase in their ability to regulate overall responses (Smyth, Hockemeyer, & Tulloch 2008)

Another technique used in clinical settings to treat PTSD include Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET). In NET, the client records the account of their trauma not in isolation but in the context of their own constructed autobiographical account (Sloan, Sawyer, Lowmaster, Wernick, & Marx 2015). Here, the client is able to create new meaning of the traumatic experience(s) by re-processing and integrating them into the frame of their whole life (Sloan, Sawyer, Lowmaster, Wernick, & Marx 2015)

While handwriting as a self-care practice or cognitive-sharpener is great for the individual, benefits can also extend to relationships. When was the last time you sent or received a hand-written letter via snail mail? Do you remember how you felt when sending it off or seeing something that looked markedly different from the collection of bills in the mail? Some might say this type of exchange is a lost art form. It’s interesting to think that, not too long ago, snail mail served as a primary mode of communication. In an age where relational exchanges are largely digitized and immediate, it’s true that snail mail is simply not in the ranking today in terms of efficiency. 

However, snail mail doesn’t have to rank or compare to other sender-receiver modes of communication for people to experience its positive effects on mental health and relationship building. With a little intention, paper, and pen, exchanging letters can have a presencing effect on both sender and receiver. For instance, it is difficult to write a letter in a knee-jerk reaction. It takes a level of care and processing that sending an email or text simply does not require. By virtue of the medium, people in snail mail exchanges, and hand-written ones at that, have the opportunity to handle the communication with less haste and more mindfulness, and this fosters connection. 

Make writing by hand a part of your day, whether you drop a note to a friend in the mail, journal for ten minutes, or take notes a little differently in your business meeting or classroom. The positive effects on your mind may surprise you, especially if you and your writing hand have been estranged for a while.

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References:

Aguirre, Claudia. “Does Writing by Hand Sharpen Your Creativity.” The Orange Dot, The Orange Dot, 19 July 2017, www.headspace.com/blog/2015/09/23/can-handwriting-sharpen-your-mind/.

Bruce, Harry. Page Fright: Foibles and Fetishes of Famous Writers. McClelland & Stewart, 2010.

James, Karin H. “The Importance of Handwriting Experience on the Development of the Literate Brain.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 26, no. 6, Aug. 2017, pp. 502–508., doi:10.1177/0963721417709821.

Kao, Henry, et al. “Calligraphy and Meditation for Stress Reduction: an Experimental Comparison.” Psychology Research and Behavior Management, 2014, p. 47., doi:10.2147/prbm.s55743.

Sloan, Denise M., et al. “Efficacy of Narrative Writing as an Intervention for PTSD: Does the Evidence Support Its Use?” Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, vol. 45, no. 4, 2015, pp. 215–225., doi:10.1007/s10879-014-9292-x.

Smyth, Joshua M., et al. “Expressive Writing and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Effects on Trauma Symptoms, Mood States, and Cortisol Reactivity.” British Journal of Health Psychology, vol. 13, no. 1, 2008, pp. 85–93., doi:10.1348/135910707×250866.

Image Credit: https://www.thejakartapost.com/life/2018/11/04/writing-by-hand-improves-cognitive-abilities-says-expert.html

Two Legs, One Brain: Positive Effects of Walking on Mental Health

In the current quaran-times, it’s true that most folks’ movement routines have been disrupted or changed in one way or another, whether losing a commute to work, thinking more deliberately about when to leave home, or exercising at home or outdoors rather than the gym. With limited destinations, this time also presents the opportunity for a deeper appreciation and consideration of human transportation in its most natural form, that is, walking.

For many of us, walking may be an easy and relatively mindless act. Perhaps some are more attuned to the action of walking with devices or apps to monitor fitness and count steps. Then, there are those humans who are in rapid transition from a four-legged reality to a two-legged reality, tumbling around with bumps and bruises to prove it. Still for others who are well past the crawling-to-walking phase, just putting one foot in front of the other may take a great deal of exertion and intention. Whatever your orientation around bipedalism, consider the following ways that ambling around is helping your mind.

Increased oxygen flow to the brain 

When walking, deeper breaths from an increase in heart rate deliver more oxygen to the blood. With increased heart rate also comes increased circulation to get that oxygenated blood to the brain (Ryerson, 2019). And a properly oxygenated brain functions optimally!

Increased blood flow to the brain

For a long time, it has been known that increased heart rate from walking and other aerobic exercise increases oxygen delivery to the brain. However, recent studies demonstrate another way walking is beneficial to brain health. One study found that the impact of feet on the ground creates a pressure wave through the arteries that physically affects blood flow to the brain (Experimental 2017). When the brain receives better blood flow, the person can experience a sense of well-being during walking itself as well as better brain function and perfusion.

Better creative thinking

In 2014, researchers from Stanford University studied the effects of walking on creativity and found a sixty percent increase in creative output in individuals who walked on a treadmill or outdoors compared to individuals who were sitting down (Stanford University, 2014). Interestingly, the study found no changes in the creativity output when comparing environments. As long as people were walking, the creative juices were flowing!

Lower likelihood of cognitive impairment

One study examined the effects of one-mile daily walks on participants aged 70-90 years and found a volume-increase in certain brain areas, specifically the frontal lobe, which is responsible for problem-solving and reasoning (Wojtys 2015). The act of walking reduced the risk of cognitive impairment, such as dementia, by fifty percent in the study’s participants (Wojtys, 2015). Another study on the effects of walking in older adults found that daily, low-intensity walks were associated with an increase in the volume of the hippocampus, which functions as a center of learning and memory in the brain (Varma, Chuang, Harris, Tan, & Carlson, 2014).

The benefits of walking on your mental health can manifest no matter if you are pacing the rooms in your home, meandering on a forest trail, or getting those steps in grocery store aisles. So, maybe the next time you need to get somewhere in walking-distance, consider letting your feet do the work and your brain reap the benefits.  

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References:

Experimental Biology 2017. (2017, April 24). How walking benefits the brain: Researchers show that foot’s impact helps control, increase the amount of blood sent to the brain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/04/170424141340.htm

Ryerson, J. (2019, March 18). How Walking Helps Your Brain. Retrieved from https://www.neurocorecenters.com/blog/how-walking-helps-your-brain

Stanford University. (2014, April 24). Stanford study finds walking improves creativity. Retrieved from https://news.stanford.edu/2014/04/24/walking-vs-sitting-042414/

Varma, V. R., Chuang, Y.-F., Harris, G. C., Tan, E. J., & Carlson, M. C. (2014). Low-intensity daily walking activity is associated with hippocampal volume in older adults. Hippocampus, 25(5), 605–615. doi: 10.1002/hipo.22397

Wojtys, E. M. (2015). Keep on Walking. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach, 7(4), 297–298. doi: 10.1177/1941738115590392

Image Credit: https://www.socialworker.com/extras/creative-work/keep-on-walking/

Speech Impairment Awareness in Behavioral Health

Have you ever traveled to a foreign country and not known the local language? Ever blanked while speaking publicly? Perhaps you’ve experienced the terror of choking and not being able to yell for help? For those of us without consistent barriers to verbal communication, it’s easy to forget how integral speech is in our lives until, in a moment of dire need, we cannot access the necessary words. 

People who live with speech disorders, however, are much more attuned to barriers in verbal communication. Speech disorders are conditions that affect someone’s ability to make the speech sounds needed for verbal communication (Eske, 2019). Stuttering, a common type of speech disorder, interrupts speech-flow through involuntary stretching, repeating, and blocks in speech sounds (Eske, 2019).  It is estimated that over three million people living in the United States stutter (Quick 2017).

Developmental stuttering, resulting from genetic factors and abnormalities in speech motor control, affects children ages two to six and is the most common form of stuttering (Mayo, 2017; Quick, 2017). Twenty-five percent of children who stutter will experience persistent developmental stuttering, in which stuttering continues through development into adulthood (Quick, 2017). Traumatic brain injuries, brain disorders, and strokes can give rise to neurogenic stuttering.  (Mayo, 2017). Emotional trauma can bring about psyhogenic stuttering and other speech disturbances in the form of conversion reactions, though these can be difficult to distinguish from neurogenic stuttering (Mayo 2017; Almada, Simões, Constante, Casquinha, & Heitor, 2016).

Like many other health conditions, stuttering is among those that may not seem immediately tied to behavioral health. This is far from the truth. People who chronically stutter can experience feelings of anxiety, fear, shame, and frustration around the condition and may make effort to order their lives so as to avoid situations, words, people or activities that activate the alarming feelings associated with the stutter (Ginsberg & Wexler, 2000). For instance, one study that examined the effects of stuttering on quality of life in adults  found that stuttering negatively affects mental health, social functioning, and emotional functioning (Craig, Blumgart, & Tran, 2009). Another study found that stuttering puts adults at greater risk for anxiety disorders than non-stuttering adults (Iverach, et al., 2009).

Stuttering and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a complex psychiatric condition resulting from experiencing intolerable amounts of stress, have been found to intersect on several levels. For instance, one case study examining the relationship between stuttering and PTSD found that the two conditions have similar neurobiological effects and symptoms, including slowed speech, slowed functioning, and memory loss from disassociation (Bigleveld, 2015). Starkweather and Givens (2004) in their report on stuttering as a variant of PTSD emphasized that stuttering itself has the potential to be a form of social PTSD. Both conditions, though distinguished from one another in levels of severity, are marked by cycles of hyper-arousal and distress around the hyper-aroused states.

As a result of the chronic, intrusive nature of the hyperaroused states, including feelings of terror, fear, anger, shame, and frustration, people with PTSD or stuttering may order their lives so as to avoid these states as much as possible (Starkweather & Givens, 2004). For instance, someone who stutters may feel immediate frustration and anxiety around saying certain speech sounds in front of a group and experience physical symptoms such as sweating or increased heart rate. The person may then try to avoid saying those words or sounds altogether. Someone who suffers from PTSD may similarly avoid those situations where triggers abound. This ultimately can impact the flow of short-term decisions, such as asking someone on a date or going grocery shopping, and long-term decisions, such as moving to a new place or choosing a career path. 

Disassociation serves as a complex mechanism in both PTSD and stuttering to protect a person from feeling the full intensity of hyper-aroused states. When someone disassociates, they may “leave” their body for a period of a few hours or days and lose touch with their sense of identity as well as other reality markers such as time and surroundings (Starkweather & Givens, 2004).

The therapeutic techniques for addressing PTSD and stuttering are similar in that the aim is to integrate intrusive, emotionally dysregulating experiences into the larger framework of a person’s life. Sustainable integration means that the PTSD or stuttering are no longer the defining factors in one’s life but instead become adaptable, moveable pieces in the puzzle. As the hyper-aroused states and other challenges associated with each condition become less central to a person’s life, the person can then move flexibly to and from states that are more livable (Starkweather & Givens, 2004). This may sound straightforward, but it is important to remember that the processes of integration are nonlinear, and every person’s therapeutic experience will different. What works for one person may not work for another.

Also like PTSD and many behavioral health topics, stuttering and other speech impairments are subject to societal misunderstanding and stigma. It is always best to take on a perspective of curiosity and get information from reliable, non-biased sources when delving into any of these issues. Let’s remember this especially as we celebrate Better Speech and Hearing Month!

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References:

Almada, A., Simões, R., Constante, M., Casquinha, P., & Heitor, M. (2016). Psychogenic stuttering: A case and review. European Psychiatry, 33. doi: 10.1016/j.eurpsy.2016.01.1389

Bijleveld, H.-A. (2015). Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and Stuttering: A Diagnostic Challenge in a Case Study. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences193, 37–43. doi: 10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.03.242

Craig, A., Blumgart, E., & Tran, Y. (2009). The impact of stuttering on the quality of life in adults who stutter. Journal of Fluency Disorders, 34(2), 61–71. doi: 10.1016/j.jfludis.2009.05.002

Eske, J. (2019, March 21). Speech disorders: Types, symptoms, causes, and treatment. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324764#types

Ginsberg, A. P., & Wexler, K. B. (2000). Understanding Stuttering and Counseling Clients Who Stutter. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 22(3), 228–239.

Iverach, L., O’Brian, S., Jones, M., Block, S., Lincoln, M., Harrison, E., … Onslow, M. (2009). Prevalence of anxiety disorders among adults seeking speech therapy for stuttering. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 23(7), 928–934. doi: 10.1016/j.janxdis.2009.06.003

Starkweather, W., & Givens, J. (2004). Stuttering as A Variant of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.stuttering-specialist.com/post/stuttering-as-a-variant-of-post-traumatic-stress-disorder

Mayo Clinic. Stuttering. (2017, August 1). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/stuttering/symptoms-causes/syc-20353572

Quick Statistics About Voice, Speech, Language. (2017, December 21). Retrieved from https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/statistics/quick-statistics-voice-speech-language

Image credit: https://www.labourmobility.com/we-all-speak-english-dont-we/

Mind the Gap: Mutual Benefits of Intergenerational Relationships

Relationships between the elderly and young generations vary widely across cultures. As demonstrated in the high prevalence of multi-generational households in many collectivist cultures, adult children live with their own children and care for aging parents in the same household. In collectivist-leaning cultures, ties to family and the care for older family members take precedence over other things like one’s career or mobility. Traditionally, multi-generational households and family-provided care are not givens in cultures that place great value on individualism. However, in recent years, some highly individualistic cultures, specifically the United States and United Kingdom, have seen an increase in the prevalence of multigenerational households (Intergenerational, 2020; Tapper, 2019).

In 2015, the chief of geriatrics and palliative medicine at Northwell Health in New York, Maria D. Carney, MD, estimated through her research that twenty-five percent of adults over the age of sixty-five in the U.S. lack a caregiver and may become isolated socially and physically (Aging 2015). A body of research demonstrates that strong intergenerational relationships are significant in diminishing the negative mental health effects of elderly isolation and are mutually beneficial for young people as well (Zhang 2018). Intergenerational relationships benefit youth in fostering a positive, more accessible outlook on the aging process, increasing self esteem, and creating opportunities to practice social skills, empathy, tolerance, and patience. (Lloyd, 2008; Elizz, 2016). Likewise, these relationships are necessary for exchanging cultural identity, values, and knowledge (Lloyd, 2008). 

In light of the fact that many elderly adults are left to age in isolation, the source of care for those to whom care is accessible (another harsh truth) lies in geriatric social workers and social programs (Snedeker, 2017). Fortunately social initiatives to combat ageism and create frameworks for intergenerational relationships to thrive are in place and expanding in some traditionally individualistic cultures. For instance, Generations United, a U.S. organization whose mission is to improve lives through opportunities for intergenerational connection, has a database containing almost 700 intergenerational programs in the U.S. According to the database, in New Orleans, some intergenerational programming can be found through Kingsley House and Tulane University’s CACTUS Project: Project Grand People.

Playtime is a prime vehicle for facilitating strong intergenerational bonds. As the 20th century psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott put it, “It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative the individual discovers the self.” One 2017 article on intergenerational learning programs suggests the use play prompts, such as reading picture books, having tea with a tea-set, blowing bubbles, singing songs, and drawing with crayons (Durand, 2017). For store-bought games and toys, if the packaging says “for ages 0-99,” it’s in the clear! 

Intergenerational relationships facilitated through play can extend beyond the physical world into the digital world. Building on past research exploring the beneficial nature of digital gameplay between young people and the elderly, a 2018 study found that quality gaming served as a fun way for family members of different generations to keep in touch (Zhang, 2018). In the times we are living in, specifically in the spin of COVID-19, elderly isolation is particularly poignant, and the intergenerational relationship solutions that remain (for now) are relegated to the digital realm. Although confinement to platforms such as Zoom and Skype has its own set of challenges, it also serves as an opportunity to create solutions in the world of digital accessibility.

This quarantine…

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References:

Aging baby boomers, childless and unmarried, at risk of becoming ‘elder orphans’. (2015, May 15). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/05/150515083532.htm

Elizz: Benefits of intergenerational programs for seniors (2016). https://elizz.com/caregiver-resources/cool-stuff/benefits-intergenerational-programs-seniors.

Lloyd, J.: The State of Intergenerational Relations Today: A Research and Discussion Paper.International Longevity Centre, London (2008)

Multigenerational Households. (2020). Retrieved from https://www.gu.org/explore-our-topics/multigenerational-households/

Durand, S. (2017, September 12). You’re Never Too Old To Play: Intergenerational Learning Programs. Retrieved from https://www.geteduca.com/blog/intergenerational-learning/

Snedeker, L. (2017). Aging and Isolation–Causes and Impacts. Social Work Today, 17.

Tapper, J. (2019, March 10). All under one roof: the rise and rise of multigenerational life. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/mar/10/rise-of-multigenerational-family-living

Zhang, F. (2018). Intergenerational Play Between Young People and Old Family Members: Patterns, Benefits, and Challenges. Human Aspects of IT for the Aged Population. Acceptance, Communication and Participation Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 581–593. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-92034-4_44

Image Credit: https://www.istockphoto.com/video/old-hand-in-young-hands-for-holding-helping-giving-support-gm1003673508-271147554

Let’s Not Forget Water, Folks

Water–indispensable. It makes up 71% of the earth’s surface and 55-75% of the human body, depending on age. In addition to the necessity of clean water for consumption and cleaning, water’s role in keeping the whole human body healthy extends even farther. We can also use it for play and exercise, each of which has its own benefits, specifically for mental health.

Water In Us

“Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.” says the centuries-old poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  As the majority of the earth’s surface is covered in water, and less than one percent of that water is drinkable, it’s safe to say Mr. Coleridge’s lyric is correct. While safe drinking water is  a basic necessity, the harsh truth is that 780 million people in the world do not have access to a safe drinking water according to the CDC’s Global Wash, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) reports (2016). 

Just think–the brain, which regulates cognition and mood, cannot properly function if it does not get enough water! If dehydration sets in, one might become dizzy, feel sleepy and irritable, and experience headaches among other symptoms (Khatri, 2019). Even mild dehydration has been  shown to impair cognitive processes such as memory and attention and have adverse effects on mood, specifically in children, the elderly, and women (Khatri, 2019)

Water Around Us

Spring has sprung, in some places, and it is getting warm enough to entertain a dip. Although public pools are out of the question right now, there’s nothing stopping you from setting up the kiddie pool and having a ball or swimming in a regular-sized pool–that works too. Along with the mental health benefits of better sleep and mood-boosting endorphins, a recent study in the American Journal of Psychiatry demonstrated that regular exercise can help prevent against symptoms of depression (Harvey, et al., 2018). Likewise swimming, as a low-impact, non weight-bearing exercise, is fully accessible to people with physical injuries.

Cold showers, anyone? Perhaps this sounds a bit uncomfortable to some, but the discomfort might be worth it in terms of reaping a reward. Like exercising, taking cold showers releases bodily endorphins, which have a positive effect on mood. Likewise, findings from one 2017 study illustrated that cold showers can reduce symptoms of depression in certain people. This occurs when cold temperature-receptors in the skin send a high volume of electrical impulses to the brain, resulting in a mild electric shock therapy effect (Shevchuk, 2008).

The moral of the story: Put water into you. Get into water. Your brain and body will thank you immensely.

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References:

Global WASH Fast Facts. (2016, April 11). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/global/wash_statistics.html

Harvey, S. B., Øverland, S., Hatch, S. L., Wessely, S., Mykletun, A., & Hotopf, M. (2018). Exercise and the Prevention of Depression: Results of the HUNT Cohort Study. American Journal of Psychiatry, 175(1), 28–36. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2017.16111223

Khatri, M. (2019, May 30). Dehydration – Signs, Symptoms, Causes, and Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/dehydration-adults#1

Shevchuk, N. A. (2008). Adapted cold shower as a potential treatment for depression. Medical Hypotheses, 70(5), 995–1001. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2007.04.052

Image Credit: https://www.smart-energy.com/regional-news/africa-middle-east/water-efficiency-programmes-auw/

Green Matters: A Look at Nature’s Role in Mental Health

There is no question that the relationship between humans and nature presents a withstanding duality. While nature’s elements , such as agents of disease and natural disasters, are the cause of many ailments and fatalities, humans are dependent upon physiological exchange with nature for food, clean water, air, and a myriad of other health benefits.

While beliefs and shared experiences around the holistic benefits of contact with nature have held true for much of human history, qualitative and quantitative research on this relationship has only just begun to gain momentum in the past twenty years. Reduction in human-to-nature contact because of factors like poor urban planning, exploitation of resources, and resulting lifestyle changes  is one shift that has made way for increased scientific exploration of the relationship between humans and nature (Hartig, Mitchell, Vries, & Frumkin, 2014). Likewise, the rise of the biopsychosocial model for informing the clinical community’s understanding of health has made way for studies that examine the nature-human relationship beyond “absence of illness” frameworks to include factors like subjective well being (SWB) and self actualization (Song, 2017; Hartig et al., 2014).

The body of research on the relationship between human contact with nature and mental health ranges across varying types of nature contact, including physical access to green space, “blue space” (aquatic environments), urban and rural gardens, indoor plant presence, window views of nature elements, virtual reality (VR) experiences, and even photographs (Song, 2017; Hartig et al., 2014). Many of the findings across these contexts provide evidence to support psycho-evolutionary theory, which hypothesizes contact with nature supports the function of the parasympathetic nervous system by reducing physiological activation (Hartig et al., 2014).

For instance, one study demonstrated that subjects recovered from stress-inducing situations quickly and more completely when they were exposed to audio-visual media depicting natural settings than when they were exposed to media showing urban settings (Ulrich, et al., 1991). The physiological responses to nature contact that were recorded in this study show clearly the effects on nervous system-regulation. Similarly, Farrow and Washburn (2019) studied parasympathetic activation in the context of a Japanese therapeutic practice called “shirin-yoku,” or forest bathing. The practice consists of mindful interactions with the forest environment that engage sight, smell, hearing, touch and even taste. Building on previous research supporting that shirin-yoku can reduce anxiety, stress, and symptoms of depression, this 2019 study found increases in lnHF, a chemical associated with lowering anxiety and parasympathetic activation, as well as reduced cortisol and blood pressure levels in participants of the study (Farrow & Washburn, 2019).

In addition to the physiological evidence of nature’s effects on mental health, research on human-nature contact supports improved states of psychological well-being through self-report measures and improved cognitive function(Bratman, et al., 2019). For instance, one 2017 German study found a positive association between neighborhoods with salient green spaces and social satisfaction, perceived safety, and strong relationship networks (Orban, Sutcliffe, Dragano, Jöckel, & Moebus, 2017). Likewise, findings from a 2015 study on the effects of nature walks on affect and cognition illustrated decreases in anxiety, negative affect, and rumination (Bratman, Daily, Levy, & Gross, 2015).

It is true that humans have always been navigating the push and pull of environmental relations, and we will stay in the process of navigating for as long as we are walking around as a species. One perspective is that, by virtue of living in an industrialized, Capitalist nation, we are subject to societal frameworks that are largely divorced from collective attention on the implications of human relationship with the natural environment. Through the lens of COVID-19, however, society at large sits in a unique collective space that is unified around consideration for human-to-nature relations.

 Although the the orientation to COVID-19 is saturated in collective anxiety as people face the realities of mortality, sickness, and unstable economic structures, this time of collective focused attention offers the opportunity for a shift in how we, as a society, define and maintain our systems that sustain life. In part, this could mean a societal reorientation around natural environments, perhaps through a deeper respect of our nuanced interdependence and participation in nature exploring how we can best support the natural environment as a pillar to individual and community holistic health. 

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References:

Bratman, G. N., Anderson, C. B., Berman, M. G., Cochran, B., de Vries, S., Flanders, J., … Daily, G. (2019). Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective. Science Advances. doi: DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aax0903

Bratman, G. N., Daily, G. C., Levy, B. J., & Gross, J. J. (2015). The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition. Landscape and Urban Planning, 138, 41–50. doi: 10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.02.005

Farrow, M. R., & Washburn, K. (2019). A Review of Field Experiments on the Effect of Forest Bathing on Anxiety and Heart Rate Variability. Global Advances in Health and Medicine, 8, 216495611984865. doi: 10.1177/2164956119848654

Hartig, T., Mitchell, R., Vries, S. D., & Frumkin, H. (2014). Nature and Health. Annual Review of Public Health, 35(1), 207–228. doi: 10.1146/annurev-publhealth-032013-182443

Orban, E., Sutcliffe, R., Dragano, N., Jöckel, K.-H., & Moebus, S. (2017). Residential Surrounding Greenness, Self-Rated Health and Interrelations with Aspects of Neighborhood Environment and Social Relations. Journal of Urban Health, 94(2), 158–169. doi: 10.1007/s11524-016-0112-3

Song, Y. (2017). A cross-state comparison of measures of subjective wellbeing. International Journal of Wellbeing, 7(1), 65–83. doi: 10.5502/ijw.v7i1.561Ulrich, R. S., Simons, R. F., Losito, B. D., Fiorito, E., Miles, M. A., & Zelson, M. (1991). Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 11(3), 201–230. doi: 10.1016/s0272-4944(05)80184-7

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