Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments

Posted by Siru Heiskanen on Jun 16, 2017

Authors: Ulrich, R. S., Simons, R. F., Losito, B. D., Fiorito, E., Miles, M. A. and Zelson, M.

Year of publication: 1991

Publication: Journal of environmental psychology, 11(3), pp.201–230.

Keywords: stress, nature, well-being,

Link to publication

Environmental stress is often studied by extremities, but this research (1991) focused on finding out how everyday, non-extreme physical environments have different influences on fostering or hampering recovery from stress. Restoration or recovery from stress involves positive changes in psychological states, from physiological systems to behavioural and cognitive functioning and performance, and mood. Previous findings and theoretical background point towards a link between exposure to nature and stress.

The study had 120 subjects who viewed a stressful movie, after which they were exposed to either natural or urban setting via a video and a sound tape. Natural settings were dominated by either vegetation or a water feature, and urban settings in turn lacked them. Stress recovery was measured by self-ratings of affective states and a battery of physiological measures: heart period (EKG), muscle tension (EMG), skin conductance (SCR) and pulse transit time (PTT).

 Subjects were affected in the anticipated direction by the stressors, evidenced by increases in skin conductance and muscle tension, significantly higher systolic blood pressure and deceleration in heart rate (p < 0.001). Equally, the stressor caused anticipated effects in emotional states (p < 0.01).

The research found, that subjects:

  • Recovered from stress much faster and more completely when they were exposed to the natural settings: there was impressive consistency across the stress measures (PTT, SCR, EMG) in indicating greater recovery influences of nature
  • Had a pattern of variation in EKG revealed directionally different responses during recovery suggesting that intake/attention was significantly higher during the natural exposures
  • Had lowered scores in anger/aggression (– 1.46, p < 0.001), fear (– 1.95, p < 0.05), and higher levels of positive affects (+ 5.52, p < 0.001)

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 study is consistent with the predictions of the psycho-evolutionary theory that nature has a restorative quality which involves a shift towards more positive emotional state and changes in physiological activity levels, accompanied by sustained attention/intake. Regarding well-being and stress, importance of environment is not confined to extreme of unusual properties such as loud noise, but to properties we encounter everyday.


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