Stress Awareness Month (April 2023): How Connecting with Nature on Earth Day Can Help Reduce Stress
Emotional stress is a major contributing factor to many of the leading causes of death in the U.S, including coronary heart disease, cancer, respiratory disorders, injuries sustained in accidents, liver cirrhosis, and suicide. 
Stress affects all of us in different ways, and most of us are used to feeling a little “frazzled” from time to time. While good time management can often help to alleviate stress, it is impossible to avoid completely. Chronic stress and anxiety can have a serious impact on health and wellbeing.
April is Stress Awareness Month, and a good time to think about the stress in our lives and effective coping skills. Earth Day on April 22nd is also an opportunity to acknowledge the role that nature plays in managing stress and avoiding burnout.
Let’s dive into the ways we can support our stress levels and enhance our wellbeing by connecting with the environment.
The benefits of nature on mental health
An estimated 10% of the world’s population is affected by a mental health disorder.  While many of these disorders can be treated with medication, the side effects of drugs has led to a renewed interest in alternative solutions. These include nutritional supplements, meditation, mindfulness exercises, sleep hygiene, physical activity, relaxation techniques, and other healthy habits. One of the most effective is the practice of engaging with the natural environment.
A growing number of studies have shown that spending time in nature can have a positive impact on mental health. Being connected with nature is positively associated with a greater sense of well-being and negatively associated with mental distress. Visiting natural environments can be beneficial in reducing both physical and psychological stress levels, with some research showing that those who immerse themselves in a natural environment report significantly lower levels of stress than those who spend time in more urbanized outdoor or indoor exercise facilities. 
Another study found that frequent visits to green spaces were associated with less frequent use of medications by those living in urban areas - particularly psychotropic, antihypertensive and asthma medications. 
In fact, nature-based health interventions (NBIs) are shown to improve mental health outcomes so effectively, it’s hoped they may help to address the growing demand for less intrusive and more cost-effective treatments.
One systematic analysis reported improvements across all mental health outcomes when engaging with nature Depression and anxiety decreased when people engaged with natural outdoor environments.
Studies show that people living in areas with more “green space” have lower mental distress and report a greater sense of wellbeing. Even just visiting green spaces on a regular basis was beneficial. 
In Japan, the practice of ‘forest bathing’ (shinrin-yoku) has been shown to significantly lower cortisol levels, representing an important means of reducing stress.  Another study found that hiking in the outdoors significantly increased feelings of happiness. 
Considering that many chronic health issues such as coronary disease and obesity are linked to stress, this is an important finding.
How connecting with nature can help reduce stress
Most of us would agree that we feel more relaxed and calm in a natural setting, such as in a forest or at a lake. And there’s plenty of scientific evidence to show that we experience numerous physiological improvements after viewing or immersing ourselves in natural settings. 
Researchers explain that nature provides a multi-sensory experience. Many aspects of our lives are monotonous - which itself can be a source of stress - and the multimodal sensory input from a natural environment can drive positive mental states such as tranquility.  Psychological connectedness to the natural world, e.g. feeling part of nature or seeing beauty in natural things, is also positively associated with positive well-being. 
Being in nature is shown to trigger beneficial psychological and physiological responses. It can help reduce blood pressure and heart rate, improve concentration, reduce levels of stress hormones, and improve cognitive function.  One study even found that a short walk along urban roads surrounded by trees significantly reduced nervous tension, anxiety, fatigue, and confusion. 
Two theories have been proposed to explain these results. Attention recovery theory suggests being surrounded by the natural environment allows us to concentrate effortlessly. In other words, being in environments that fascinate us - such as watching a sunset - stimulate our attention involuntarily, allowing directed-attention mechanisms a chance to replenish. 
Stress reduction theory proposes that exposure to nature calls on evolutionary psychological responses of safety and survival, activating our parasympathetic nervous system and promoting recovery from psychophysiological stress. 
Earth Day and environmental stress
In addition to the psychological stress that can contribute to ill health, many of us living in urban areas also face “environmental stress”. Environmental stresses include the production and release of new chemical compounds and large-scale land-use changes resulting directly from human actions.  Both psychological and environmental stress have been associated with an increased risk of mental and physical health issues, partly due to the way stress can affect nutrition and micronutrient concentrations in the body. For example, both acute and chronic exposure to psychological and environmental stress has been associated with lower magnesium levels and higher output of magnesium in urine. 
Pollution is another form of environmental stress that can be detrimental to human health. Exposure to high levels of air pollution - both short- and long-term - can increase the risk of respiratory infections, heart disease and lung cancer. According to WHO, the most harmful products of pollution are fine PM2.5 particles that penetrate deep into lung passageways. Children, the elderly, and those who are already ill are more susceptible. 
Earth Day aims to raise awareness about protecting the Earth and preserving its natural resources for future generations. By spending time outdoors and connecting with nature more fully, we can understand just how important it is to consider our impact on the environment. In fact, practicing sustainability and “going green” have been shown to have important benefits for our cognitive and emotional health. One study reported that people who engage in physical activity outdoors and have greener households feel less stressed, and have better physical and psychological health.  Living an eco-friendly lifestyle fosters a deeper connection with nature and stimulates positive mood.
Stress affects a significant proportion of the population and is a leading cause of many chronic health conditions. National Stress Awareness Day is a valuable reminder that effective stress management and regular self-care should be a priority for everyone, especially when it comes to supporting work-life balance and productivity.
Connecting with the natural environment can not only help to reduce stress but provide many other physiological and psychological benefits. Simply being outdoors in a green space can help us relax and enhance our sense of wellbeing.
Earth Day serves as an opportunity for us to realize the importance of nature: not only for future generations, but for our own health and wellbeing. Making a conscious effort to reduce our impact on the environment is beneficial not only for the planet but for our minds.
Going green gives us a sense of purpose in life as we understand the importance of supporting the planet, and the rewards that come with making changes to our environmental footprint.