Article: Nature Experiences Reduce Rumination

If you've read much of my writing or worked with me in 1-on-1 coaching sessions, you already know this, but I am a huge proponent of using nature to improve mental well-being. Speaking from personal experience, I've always had a hunch that spending time in nature has the ability to ground us and give us perspective. To my delight, I recently came across this scientific paper summarizing recent research out of Stanford, finding that nature experiences decrease our tendency to ruminate and increases our mental well-being.

For those not super familiar with the concept of rumination, it does have a specific psychological definition, but basically, when you feel your brain is stuck in a rut, you are ruminating. This happens when your brain is trying to solve something, but makes no progress. Maybe you're in the habit of always shooting your solutions down (depressive thinking). Or maybe you're in the habit of continuously coming up with new problems as soon as you solved the last one (anxious thinking). Bottom line, this type of thinking, this rumination, is not constructive and it perpetuates the anxiety cycle.

The recent Stanford study built on previous research, which found that an area of the brain called the subgenual prefrontal cortex (sgPFC), has been linked with a "self-focused behavioral withdrawal linked to rumination in both depressed and healthy individuals." So the Stanford research team designed and implemented an experiment that tested the influence of nature experiences on activity in the sgPFC as well as on self-reported levels of rumination.

So what was this experiment? Basically they took 38 city-dwelling people with no history of depression or anxiety, made them take a questionnaire about their ruminative behavior and scanned the sgPFC region of their brains. Then half of the participants were sent on a 5.3-mile walk through a large quiet green space with grassland and scattered trees. The other half (control group) were sent on a 5.3-mile walk down the busiest nearby road, a 4-lane street with steady traffic in both directions. Participants were tracked by GPS and required to take 10 photos during their walk to make sure they actually completed their assigned walk. Afterwards, participants were again asked to fill out the rumination questionnaire and subjected to the same scan of sgPFC activity. And what did those researchers find - significant decreases in both questionnaire test scores and sgPFC activity among participants who took the nature walk.

If you're interested in the details of the study, by all means, take a read through. Otherwise, feel free to go try a walk in the woods!