Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Nature and psychological distress

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Nature and psychological distress:
How can nature help people deal with psychological distress?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Spending a sufficient amount of time in nature can reduce psychological distress

The hassles of daily life can be stressful! In the modern world, humans live in overdrive, barely letting themselves rest or take a minute to breathe. There is always something to do and someone to see. The 'to do' list is often never ending and rarely gets cleared as tasks are always being added to it. Each day we are faced with several external stressors, this can include lack of sleep, university assignments, bills to pay, a heavy workload, or even the loss of a job (Arvidsdotter et al., 2015). All of these stressors consume our time and can prevent us from utilising nature and taking a walk in the park or going on a picnic with loved ones. This can lead to psychological distress, which is essentially a state of heightened stress that produces deeply unpleasant negative feelings and can be hard to overcome (Arvidsdotter et al., 2015).

Nature can have many beneficial psychological effects on individuals (See Figure 1.). It can reduce stress and depression, as well as increasing cognitive abilities. Unfortunately, due to the increased demand on humans, along with technology, a decrease in outdoor activities is prevalent in the community (Larson et al., 2018). Several theories support nature in reducing psychological distress, including, the stress recovery theory, biophilia theory hypothesis and attention restoration theory.

This chapter explores psychological distress and how nature can help to relieve individuals who are experiencing vast amounts of stress. Psychological theories and case studies are discussed to further explore and understand the relationship between psychological distress and nature.

Focus questions
  • What is psychological distress?
  • How can nature help people deal with psychological distress?
  • How can emotion theories and research help understand the relationship between psychological distress and nature?

Psychological distress[edit | edit source]

What is psychological distress?[edit | edit source]

Psychological distress is experienced by almost everyone in modern culture. It can be defined as an internal emotional suffering in response to one or multiple external stressors (Horwitz, 2007). People experience varied amounts of distress and this is determined by the way the individual copes with the external stressors (Cascarini, 2006). Psychological distress can be closely related to depression and anxiety (Microwsky and Ross, 2002). Prolonged exposure to psychological distress can be detrimental to health and it is important to discover useful coping mechanisms in order to reduce stress (Microwsky and Ross, 2002).

Distress versus eustress[edit | edit source]

Not all types of stress are considered detrimental to health. There are two types of stress; distress and eustress.

Distress is defined as developing negative emotions to external sources. Most people experiencing distress feel as if they have no control over the situation and that they are helpless, this in turn creates feelings of depression and anxiety.

Eustress is a positive form of stress, and is proven to have a beneficial effect on health, motivation and performance.

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True or False!

1 Psychological distress can lead to depression and anxiety.


2 Eustress is considered detrimental to health and should be avoided at all costs.


The effects of nature[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. There are many psychological benefits from spending time in nature.

Spending time in nature, or even viewing photos of nature, reduces psychological distress, and symptoms related to psychological distress, such as; anger and fear (Kidner, 2007). Exposure to nature not only improves mood, it contributes to physical well-being, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones.

Psychological effects[edit | edit source]

The effects of nature on the brain are a developing field in research. Scientists are beginning to find evidence that being in nature has a profound impact on the brain and behaviours of humans (Kidner, 2007). Nature can help reduce stress, anxiety and depression, as well as increase attention capacity, and decrease symptoms of ADHD (Figure 2.)

Stress[edit | edit source]

A highly-studied area of research is the relationship between nature and stress. There is mounting evidence that exposure to nature enhances the resources necessary to reduce and potentially buffer stress. In Jiang, Chang and Sullivan's (2014) study, the researchers presented participants with a six-minute nature treatment video, in which the participants were exposed to natural environments and high tree coverage. The results suggested that a six-minute exposure to a video with moderate tree cover density evoked about three times the stress reduction than a six-minute exposure to a video with no trees. Jo, Song and Myazaki (2019) also demonstrated that when participants were exposed to natural settings, or even images of natural settings, their physiological indicators of stress; including blood pressure and heart rate decreased rapidly. It is demonstrated through these studies that nature can help alleviate symptoms of stress, and further benefit health.

Case study 1.1

Joseph is in his mid-thirties and has just started a new degree at University to further progress in his occupation. He finds himself with little leisure time as he works 5 days a week to be able to afford rent and food. His work has recently been asking Joseph to work outside of his normal hours to accommodate how busy they are getting. He used to run every morning and afternoon with his dog Rex, however, lately he has not found the time as he seems to either be working or studying. The pressures as of late have really started to affect him and he has noticed that he is often more inclined to lash out at people and has felt quite anxious about situations in his life that usually would not bother him. He read somewhere recently that spending more time outside can help to reduce psychological distress and so in an effort to help his mental health he starts to get up earlier in the morning and run again. He finds that after doing this for several weeks he is now feeling happier and even has more energy throughout the day.

Depression[edit | edit source]

Prolonged high levels of psychological distress can eventually lead to depression, and studies have shown that exposure to nature can reduce the symptoms of depression, in turn causing a reduction in psychological distress. In Alcock, White, Wheeler, Fleming and Depledge (2014) study, participants who were diagnosed with depression were moved from urban suburbs and relocated to suburbs known for their nature and scenery. The results demonstrated a decrease in depressive symptoms, and an overall improved mental health and well-being. Similar results were presented in Vries, Verheij, Groenewegen and Spreeuwenberg (2003) study, participants self-reported on their health and well-being as well as their living arrangements (i.e., amount of green space in their living environment). Results indicated that living in a green environment was positively related to reduced symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. These studies indicate a strong relationship between nature exposure and depression prevention and reduction, which therefore can alleviate psychological distress.

Cognitive abilities[edit | edit source]

Researchers have also discovered that nature has the ability to increase attention, promote attention restoration and decrease symptoms of ADHD. Not being able to focus or feeling restless in the classroom can cause high amounts of frustration and stress for children. Recent studies have revealed that nature therapy and exposure to green spaces have decreased ADHD symptoms. A study which was conducted by Dineen (2018), explored participants (aged 5-9) who had recently been diagnosed with ADHD, or who were showing ADHD symptoms. These participants were directed to contribute to interactive activities that focused on different aspects of the environment such as "land and seas" and "birds and bees". The program included four daily sessions and assessed the students ADHD levels through verbal tests 15 minutes after each session. The students presented significant reductions in hyper-vigilance and increased ability to hold attention after each session. By improving attention restoration and decreasing attention fatigue children will also have a decrease in psychological distress as they will be able to focus better and accomplish more throughout the day.

Physiological effects[edit | edit source]

Nature can have many beneficial physiological effects on the body. It can lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, reduce nervous system arousal, and improve mood. Louv (2005) had a different outlook on the physiological effects that nature has on the body. He suggested that the deprivation of nature can cause placed blindness, sensory anaesthesia and species loneliness. By making a conscious effort to engage with nature on a daily basis we can improve our mindset and pursue a happier and healthier mind.

Placed blindness[edit | edit source]

Placed blindness is this idea that as technology emerges humans spend less time outdoors and more time immersed within their devices. This causes humans to lose individualised relationships with the land on which they live. This phenomenon usually begins in childhood when a child starts to engage excessively with technology, therefore, taking away time they would otherwise spend outdoors. By not engaging with the land children become less aware of their natural environment and fail to understand and appreciate the land. By not having a strong connection with the land and experiencing what humans were made to experience, this could further enhance psychological distress. Louv (2005) suggested that place blindness can be cured by spending at least ten minutes a day outdoors, while taking in the environment and acknowledging the nature.

Sensory anaesthesia[edit | edit source]

Sensory anaesthesia is a term developed by Louv (2005); the term was developed to describe the disconnection of feedback we receive from nature through our five senses. Sensory anaesthesia is caused by essentially spending more time indoors and not emerging ourselves within nature. This ultimately can lead to dulled senses. Louv (2005) suggests that in order to cure this occurrence it is crucial that we seek outdoor meditation. By meditating outdoors, we are enabling our senses to engage with the environment, this could also enhance a healthier mind, thereby, alleviating symptoms of psychological distress as meditation can help humans escape from their chaotic lives and appreciate the current moment.

Species loneliness[edit | edit source]

Species loneliness is the idea that children lack connection with other species on this earth as they are not engaging with other species, besides their household pets. Having a connection with other species is an important aspect for physical, mental and physiological health. To cure species loneliness Louv (2005) recommends that we take time out of our busy lives to notice the species we are surrounded by. By listening to the bird's chirp in the early hours of the morning and watching the ducks play in the pond we will feel a sense of belongingness and connection to the land on which we live, thereby, curing species loneliness.

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Quiz Time!

Who is most likely to experience 'species loneliness'?

Robert who goes down to the lake each morning to feed the swans
Grace who is a community gardener and often interacts with the birds
Amber who works long hours and prefers to put her feet up and indulge in her favourite TV show when she has free time
Sebastian who lives at the beach and often encounters the fish on his swims

Psychological theories[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. The biophilia theory hypothesis states that humans have an innate drive to seek out connections with nature and other forms of life.

Various psychological theories have been examined to further obtain a comprehensive understanding of the effects that nature has on reducing psychological distress.

Biophilia theory hypothesis[edit | edit source]

The biophilia hypothesis states that humans are evolutionary hardwired to have a strong connection with nature and all forms of life (Kellert & Wilson, 1993). This desire is considered to be innate and largely unconscious (Kahn, 1997). From an evolutionary standpoint, human survival was based fundamentally on the ability to understand and seek connection with the nature (See Figure 3.). This evolutionary affiliation presented in our ancestors is suggested to not only account for our tendency to seek connections to nature, but also enhance our emotional and psychological health (Kellert & Wilson, 1993). This is why many of us favour natural light over artificial light, seek out natural landscapes, and have plants in our houses. Therefore, our innate preference for nature may induce positive emotions and remove negative emotions when exposed to natural settings, thereby, reducing psychological distress and increasing happiness.

Stress reduction theory[edit | edit source]

The Stress Reduction Theory (SRT) was first introduced by Robert Ulrich in 1984. This model suggests that natural environments can alleviate psychophysiological stress, negative moods, and fatigue that were ultimately caused from excessive amount of time spent in unnatural environments (Joye & Dewitte, 2018). This hypothesis is supported by findings that indicate physiological signs of stress, such as heart rate variability or cortisol levels, are reduced when exposed to a nature scene as opposed to an urban environment (Song et al., 2019). Song et al. (2019) indicated that this reduction in physiological symptoms is matched with an increase in psychological feelings of relaxation. The SRT can be used to explain how nature can reduce psychological distress. As many people in todays generation are spending more time in urban environments than in natural environments, humans are suggested to be overloaded and over-stimulated by noise, movement and visual complexity. These daily interactions can easily overwhelm and increase stress in people. Spending quality time in natural environments and connecting with nature appears to be an antidote for those suffering with psychological distress.

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Quiz Time!

According to stress reduction theory, visiting/swimming in a waterfall would

be more stressful than spending time in an unnatural environment
increase feelings of relaxation.
increase your blood pressure
make you feel stressed

Attention restoration theory[edit | edit source]

The Attention Restoration Theory (ART) proposes that exposure in nature helps humans improve mental focus and the ability to concentrate. ART suggests that the positive effects of being in nature are due to its relieving of attention fatigue (Kaplan, 1995). Attention fatigue occurs when our cognitive capacity to direct attention is used up (Joye & Dewitte, 2018). This may be because a task is very specific, not intrinsically motivating, or there are more interesting tasks competing for your attention. Attention fatigue has many negative effects on our emotions as it can leave us feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, and overall, stressed out (Horwitz, 2007). Spending a sufficient amount of time in nature has the capacity to decrease attention fatigue which will therefore, decrease psychological distress.

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Video break

An interesting and informative Ted Talk about attention restoration theory - Restore your brain with nature

Click here: access video

How can nature help people deal with psychological distress?[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Restorative environments often reduce emotional and psychological stress

Nature can have many beneficial affects to the mind. Spending quality time in restorative environments can reduce psychological distress rapidly as well as enabling people to learn emotional regulation and distress tolerance.

Stress coping[edit | edit source]

Many researchers suggest that spending quality time outdoors is a factor in stress reduction (Kellert & Wilson, 1993). For example, exercise rids the body of some of its adrenalin and cortisol and exposure to daylight may reduce stress by adjusting hormone levels (Kidner, 2007). Research shows that the human body reacts involuntarily to natural elements, whereas artefacts such as houses and streets do not provoke the same quick and strong reactions, therefore, exercising outdoors in nature is suggested to benefit the mind more than exercising indoors or in urban environments (See Figure 4) (Kellert & Wilson, 1993). Further, there is speculation, most notably by Kaplan (2001), that meditating while in nature may amplify the restorative benefits of nature affiliation. Supported by decades of research, meditative practices are thought to play a significant role in the promotion and regulation of positive emotions and therefore, practicing mindfulness outdoors could be exceptionally good for the mind and help in reducing psychological distress. A study conducted by Ibes and Forestell (2020) found that when participants meditated for 20 minutes in a greenspace, they experienced a significant reduction in mood disturbance relative to those who sat inside. These findings underscore the value of encouraging people to spend time outdoors. People can engage in all sorts of activities (e.g., studying, socialising, eating lunch, exercising and meditation), while unconsciously realizing the benefits of being outdoors.

Emotional regulation[edit | edit source]

Emotion regulation is a term generally used to describe a persons ability to effectively manage and respond to an emotional experience. Generally speaking, the extremes of any emotion can have an adverse effect on health. When experiencing psychological distress people often feel consumed by the extreme negative feelings associated with it and often find it difficult to navigate their way out of it. Therefore, it is essential to practice emotional regulation to achieve a higher distress tolerance and better-coping strategies. There are many ways to train the mind to control emotions, however, actively using the environment has been suggested to have advantage over all other strategies and seems to be the easiest to implement. In Johnsen and Rydstedt (2013) study participants were required to either spend active time in nature daily or look at pictures of nature every evening, thereby, using nature for emotion regulation. The results revealed that using nature for emotion regulation is an effective strategy. It was found that actively spending time in nature for emotion regulation had an effect on positive mood. It has been suggested that simply walking daily in nature, or practicing mindfulness while submerged in nature, can enhance emotional intelligence. By training the mind to be emotionally intelligent a person will be able to counteract psychological distress and navigate their emotions to benefit their health.

Distress tolerance[edit | edit source]

Distress tolerance is a persons ability to manage actual or perceived emotional distress. There are most commonly six strategies used to enhance distress tolerance. The most effective being:

Self-soothing techniques; When most people are anxious or in a stressful situation, the most adaptive way to cope is to utilise self-soothing techniques. Most people develop their own ways to calm themselves when feeling distressed. Some adaptive self-soothing techniques include using all your senses to mentally and emotionally ground yourself (Chapman et al., 2011). This could involve sitting outside and looking at all the colours and textures in the environment, listening to the sounds of the birds chirping, feeling the breeze run through your hair, and smelling the freshly cut grass.

TIPP skills; TIPP is an acronym for Temperature, Intense Exercise, Paced Breathing, and Paired Muscle Relaxation. TIPP skills work very fast and can be utilised anywhere. By exercising outdoors the limbic system will be automatically calmed and result in lowering the state of emotional arousal.

Distraction; If someone is feeling particularly overwhelmed, it may help them to temporarily do something else to distract themselves from the distressing situation, until they are able to return to deal with it calmly (Chapman et al., 2011). Distraction can involve catching up with a friend for a walk, playing outdoors with pets or even reading a book under a tree.

All of these strategies suggest that utilising the environment can help in strengthening distress tolerance and further decreasing psychological distress.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Psychological distress is commonly experienced in the modern world. Finding measures to cope with psychological distress is important to reduce detrimental health outcomes and support well-being. Nature is suggested to counteract psychological distress and improve negative emotions associated with it. The biophilia hypothesis posits that nature may increase positive emotions as humans have an innate desire to connect to nature. Attention restoration theory suggests that nature reduces negative emotional states by reducing attention fatigue. Stress reduction theory indicates that nature reduces the physiological signs of stress, which in turn reduces our negative emotions. Nature has been shown to increase positive emotions and decrease negative emotions, as well as improve emotional regulation and distress tolerance. Therefore, nature has important implications for improving emotional wellbeing and decreasing psychological distress, as well as helping people gain emotional regulation and distress tolerance.

The take-home message: Nature has the potential to counteract psychological distress and improve well-being.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Arvidsdotter, T., Marklund, B., Kylén, S., Taft, C., & Ekman, I. (2015). Understanding persons with psychological distress in primary health care. Scandinavian Journal Of Caring Sciences, 30(4), 687-694.

Chapman, A., Dixon-Gordon, K., & Walters, K. (2011). Experiential Avoidance and Emotion Regulation in Borderline Personality Disorder. Journal Of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 29(1), 35-52.

Cascarini, L. (2006). Distress. BMJ, 332(7555), 1422.2.

de Vries, S., Verheij, R., Groenewegen, P., & Spreeuwenberg, P. (2003). Natural Environments—Healthy Environments? An Exploratory Analysis of the Relationship between Greenspace and Health. Environment And Planning A: Economy And Space, 35(10), 1717-1731.

Dineen, M. (2018). The Benefits of a Therapeutic Nature Education Intervention for Children with ADHD.

Horwitz, A. (2007). Distinguishing distress from disorder as psychological outcomes of stressful social arrangements. Health: An Interdisciplinary Journal For The Social Study Of Health, Illness And Medicine, 11(3), 273-289.

Ibes, D., & Forestell, C. (2020). The role of campus greenspace and meditation on college students’ mood disturbance. Journal Of American College Health, 1-8.

Jiang, B., Chang, C., & Sullivan, W. (2014). A dose of nature: Tree cover, stress reduction, and gender differences. Landscape And Urban Planning, 132, 26-36., H., Song, C., & Miyazaki, Y. (2019). Physiological Benefits of Viewing Nature: A Systematic Review of Indoor Experiments. International Journal Of Environmental Research And Public Health, 16(23), 4739.

Johnsen, S., & Rydstedt, L. (2013). Active Use of the Natural Environment for Emotion Regulation. Europe’S Journal Of Psychology, 9(4), 798-819., I., White, M., Wheeler, B., Fleming, L., & Depledge, M. (2014). Longitudinal Effects on Mental Health of Moving to Greener and Less Green Urban Areas. Environmental Science & Technology, 48(2), 1247-1255.

Joye, Y., & Dewitte, S. (2018). Nature's broken path to restoration. A critical look at Attention Restoration Theory. Journal Of Environmental Psychology, 59, 1-8.

Kahn, P. (1997). Developmental Psychology and the Biophilia Hypothesis: Children's Affiliation with Nature. Developmental Review, 17(1), 1-61.

Kaplan, S. (2001). Meditation, Restoration, and the Management of Mental Fatigue. Environment And Behavior, 33(4), 480-506.

Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal Of Environmental Psychology, 15(3), 169-182.

Kidner, D. (2007). Depression and the natural world: towards a critical ecology of psychological distress. Retrieved 12 October 2021, from

Larson, L., Szczytko, R., Bowers, E., Stephens, L., Stevenson, K., & Floyd, M. (2018). Outdoor Time, Screen Time, and Connection to Nature: Troubling Trends Among Rural Youth?. Environment And Behavior, 51(8), 966-991.

Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods: saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC. Algonquin Books

Mirowsky, J., & Ross, C. (2002). Depression, parenthood, and age at first birth. Social Science & Medicine, 54(8), 1281-1298.

The Biophilia Hypothesis, Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson. 1993. Island Press, Washington, DC. 484 pages. ISBN: 1-55963-148-1. $27.50. (1995), 15(1), 52-53.

External links[edit | edit source]