Nature: the Best Medicine

MeganKWhen was the last time you studied outside instead of cooped up in Olin? How often have you taken advantage of the urban gem that is Forest Park? Days are getting shorter and chillier as we approach the end of the semester. As finals season approaches, student stress levels soar, having just gotten through midterms season. Even before finals, student stress abounds at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL). In 2012, the American College Counseling Association conducted a study and found that 37.4 percent of college students seeking professional help have severe psychological disorders, an increase from 16 percent  in 2000. According to a study in the Current Psychology journal, 75-80 percent of college students feel moderately stressed, whereas another 10-12 percent feel severely stressed. With these daunting figures, it is important for students to have a healthy outlet for their stress. It is easy to turn to electronics, partying, or stress eating in order to deal with stress. However, there is a much healthier, costless alternative to the aforementioned coping mechanisms—going outdoors and enjoying nature.

Edward Abbey, author and environmentalist, recognized the need to be outside when he said, “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.” In Japan, the concept of shinrin yoku, or “forest-bathing,” is a standard preventative practice. People leave cities and spend a couple hours or perhaps a day or so out in forests, reaping the benefits of nature. Scientists all over the world have also studied and confirmed nature’s health benefits. A 2012 study in the Landscape and Urban Planning journal selected several healthy adults in Scotland and measured their levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Researchers then studied the natural environments in which each study participant lived. They found that individuals who lived in areas with more parks and green space had lower levels of cortisol, and they also had lower levels of self-reported stress.

A 2007 study in the Journal of Social Issues attempted to explain why nature has such psychologically restorative effects through a model called Attention Restoration Theory (ART). According to ART, “natural environments provide relatively good opportunities for psychological restoration because transactions with natural environments possess several qualities that, in combination, emerge less commonly in other types of environment.” The therapeutic qualities of nature that ART describes is the sense of being away from the stressors of everyday life, unique stimuli that appeal to a person’s many senses and hold his or her attention, and the sense of adventure in the vast outdoors.

In addition to stress relief, being outdoors provides an excellent opportunity to get exercise. Exercise increases your endorphin levels, the brain’s “feel-good” neurotransmitters. There are so many different forms of exercise out in nature from hiking to trail running to cycling that there really is something for everyone.

Sometimes schoolwork and other commitments prevent students from being able to leave campus. Whenever this is the case, it is still possible to get outdoors. One idea is to try to do everyday things outside. For example, if you normally take the Circ to class, try walking to class one morning. If there happens to be a warm day, try bringing your books and study outside. WUSTL’s Brown School of Social Work pioneered the idea of “Meetings on the Move,” where employees conduct meetings while walking around outside in parks and on campus grounds instead of sitting around a conference table.

Spending time in nature has therapeutic qualities for stressed-out students. Even if your schedule does not allow a trip off campus, there are other steps that can be taken to get outdoors. Follow Edward Abbey’s lead and head outside.

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At WUSTL, the wilderness is closer than some students may think. Here are some options to get outdoors:

  • Forest Park is minutes from campus and provides 1,293 acres of greenery as well as miles of running and cycling trails.

  • The Missouri Department of Conservation maintains hiking trails in Kennedy Forest on the southwest side of the park. There are also prairie and wetland restoration areas, which attract all different types of wildlife, such as horned owls, minks, and foxes, and wild turkeys.

  • Several Missouri State Parks are located within an hour of WUSTL, including Castlewood State Park and the Jones-Confluence State Park. Both state parks feature abundant hiking trails, and the Jones-Confluence State Park will soon connect with the 240 mile Katy Trail, which runs from Kansas City to St. Louis and is open to runners, hikers, and cyclists.

  • All of these are easily accessible by car or WeCar. If students do not have access to a car, they can check out WUSTL’s Outing Club, which goes on several hiking, camping, or climbing trips throughout the year.



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