How woodland sounds can soothe your stress

The sounds of nature can boost your wellbeing.

A walk in woodlands can make strong strides with your stress levels and can boost your overall wellbeing, according to a new study.

The National Trust research aimed to compare the impact on stress and anxiety of listening to woodland sounds compared to listening to an audio recording of a relaxing meditation.

Findings showed that listening to woodland sounds – including birds singing, leaves crunching underfoot, and the trickle of a stream – increased relaxation levels by 30%. They also reduced stress levels by 24%, and there was a 19% downturn in anxiety. Comparing this with the voiced meditation app: relaxation levels showed no change, but feelings of stress reduced by 39% and feelings of anxiety reduced by 47%. The research concluded that the environment can impact on how you feel.

Dr Eleanor Ratcliffe, Lecturer in Environmental Psychology at the University of Surrey, said: ‘There is a large body of scientific evidence demonstrating that experience of nature can benefit health and wellbeing, including recovery from everyday psychological stress. Much of this research has focused on visual experiences, but more recent work has shown that the sounds of the outdoors, such as birdsong, wind, and water, can also improve mood and reduce stress.’

Stress management techniques often focus on breathing, meditation, exercise and managing your negative thoughts. Yet this latest study shows that attuning to your senses and listening to calming sounds can help too. If woodland sounds work for you, then think about other ways you can soothe your stress through your ears – maybe by making a play list of your favourite relaxing music to accompany you back to a calmer place when you feel your stress levels rising.

Why trying to relax can trigger your anxiety

Trying not to worry can bring on its own anxiety. (pic credit: Aleksandra Sabelskaia)

The headline of this post sounds like a paradox. Why would efforts to achieve relaxation end up bringing on more anxiety?

Yet research from Penn State shows that if you’re suffering from anxiety then you may strategically choose worrying over relaxing. Researchers found that people with anxiety can actively resist relaxation for fear that the gap between relaxing and anxiety may be too severe should something bad happen. It feels safer to continue worrying.

The study looked at people with and without generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) to measure how sensitive they were to changes in their emotional state, and took them through some relaxation exercises before asking them to watch a video that would elicit fear or sadness.

The researchers found that people with GAD were more likely to be sensitive to sharp spikes in emotion, and this sensitivity was linked to feeling anxious during sessions intended to induce relaxation. It is as though they are making themselves anxious on purpose as a way to protect themselves from the letdown if something bad happened.

They fear their anxiety will spike suddenly after they choose to relax, and so prefer instead to maintain a constant state of low-level worry. That is preferable to giving way to relaxing activities, which can bring on Relaxation Induced Anxiety (RIA). It may explain why people who experience anxiety aren’t able to respond to typical anxiety-reducing techniques such as mindfulness, visualisation and deep breathing. They can instead experience a spike in their anxiety while trying to relax.

I’m imagining that anyone reading this post who hasn’t experienced anxiety will be wondering why anxious people can’t switch off their worry. And a person with anxiety reading this post might identify for the first time with the phenomenon I’m describing.

Advice from Michelle Newman, professor of psychology, is as follows: “People may be staying anxious to prevent a large shift in anxiety, but it’s actually healthier to let yourself experience those shifts. The more you do it, the more you realise you can do it and it’s better to allow yourself to be relaxed at times. Mindfulness training and other interventions can help people let go and live in the moment.”

Or, if you find that you really can’t switch off with intentional relaxation exercises, try other activities that absorb your mind and body. Doing things that put you in flow – such as puzzles, knitting, gardening, cooking, painting, reading etc – can all help give you some respite from your anxiety.

The full research, The paradox of relation training: Relaxation induced anxiety and mediation effects of negative contrast sensitivity in generalised anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder, is published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

How being by the seaside is good for mental health

Coastal living can reduce the chances of suffering from depression and anxiety.

Living close to the seaside has a swell of benefits for mental health, especially for people on lower incomes, according to a study from the University of Exeter.

The research, which looked at the link between coastal proximity and self-reported mental health using data from 26,000 adults living in England, was published in the Health and Place journal. The findings show that people living less than a kilometre had “significantly lower odds” of suffering from a common mental health disorder (CMD) compared those living 50km away. This difference was more marked in those from low-income households.

In England, an estimated one in six adults (17 %) surveyed were suffering symptoms of a common mental disorder, such as anxiety or depression. However, this survey is the latest in a series of studies that shows how exposure to natural environments – green as well as blue spaces – can support mental health and wellbeing.

Those benefits can include more opportunities for social contact and physical activity, reduced stress, improved air quality and immune functioning, lower levels of psychological distress, and a greater chance to feeling psychologically restored after a trip to the seaside.

Dr Mathew White, environmental psychologist at the University of Exeter, is calling on leaders to ensure more people have access to ‘blue spaces’ such as sea, lakes and rivers, because of the reported uplift to physical and mental wellbeing. He said: “This kind of research into blue health is vital to convincing governments to protect, create and encourage the use of coastal spaces. We need to help policy makers understand how to maximise the wellbeing benefits of ‘blue’ spaces in towns and cities and ensure that access is fair and inclusive for everyone, while not damaging our fragile coastal environments.”

This latest survey adds to a body of evidence collated by Blue Health that points to the benefits of blue spaces to physical activity, emotional wellbeing and mental health.

Swimming has buoyant benefits for mental health, says study

Regular trips to the pool can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, according to research.
(pic credit: scusi)

A major study into swimming and mental health has revealed that regular trips to the pool can make life feel more manageable – and can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The YouGov research, on behalf of Swim England, shows that 1.4million people have reported improved mental wellbeing thanks to swimming. These improvements for nearly half a million people include fewer visits to their GP for mental health reasons, and a reduction in (or no further need for) their mental health medication.

Of the 3.3million UK adults with mental health problems who swim at least once every couple of weeks, when questioned how swimming impacts their everyday life, responded:

  • 43% say swimming makes them happier.
  • 26% are more motivated to complete daily tasks.
  • 15% believe life feels more manageable.

Ian Cumming, chair of the Swimming and Health Commission, said: “Physical activity in any form can have a positive impact on a person’s mental health, but swimming is unique because the buoyancy of water ensures everyone is able to take part at a pace that suits them. Research shows that simply being in water can be restorative, particularly swimming outside.”

The benefits of any exercise whatsoever have been shown to benefit mental health. Swimming is said to offer versatility, whether you want a leisurely lane swim or to set yourself time and distance targets. All the while being supported by the water.

Hayley Jarvis, head of physical activity at the Mind mental health charity, added: “We all know that doing physical activities like swimming is good for our bodies. But our physical health and mental health are closely linked and being physically active can also be very beneficial for our mental health too. If you’re more active there’s good evidence to suggest that, at most ages, there’s a trend towards lower rates of depression. One study has found that by increasing your activity levels from doing nothing, to exercising at least three times a week, you can reduce your risk of depression by up to 30%.”

Perhaps worth digging out your costume and heading to the local pool.

A psychotherapist’s perspective on achieving work-life balance

Establishing your priorities and sticking to them can help you balance your life.
(pic credit: pixelbliss)

It’s National Work Life Week, an initiative created to raise awareness of the challenges facing working families and to encourage more measures to support their wellbeing. Though the stats aren’t great: separate studies show that a third of employees are happy with their work-life balance – and three-quarters of working parents say they’re suffering stress and anxiety from the lack of work-life balance.

I see a lot of people coming into my therapy practice on the verge of burnout because they’re trying to meet the relentless demands of other– and the high expectations of themselves. The drive to ‘have it all’ is leaving them depleted and satisfying no one. They find themselves constantly running towards deadlines, and having no time to enjoy the journey along the way. Before they know it, another year has passed and they still haven’t achieved what they long for.

While many work-life balance initiatives are aimed at changing the way employers structure the working day – for example, allowing for flexi-time and home-working – I believe there are some steps you can take as an individual to achieve more balance in your life:

Know your purpose

Why are you doing this? Why are you setting the alarm early to tick off all points on your routine and run ragged through your day? What are you getting out of work? Is this how you want to be spending your time? Do you feel joy and satisfaction in what you do? Having a purpose is what bounces you out of bed in the morning. Having work that is aligned with your core values feels effortless and is worth all the inevitable juggling you have to do. Your purpose may be to have a job that is a means to an end so you can enjoy your family life. Your purpose may be to achieve promotion and to climb the corporate ladder. Whatever your goal, it’s being clear on why you’re doing this that can remind you to keep going through the frazzled times – and it can help you make decisions that are tagged to your purpose.

Keep firm boundaries

A boundary is a counselling word, in effect, that means the lines you put around yourself that show the limits of where you’re prepared to go. In the workplace, a contract would outline the professional boundaries within which you’re expected to work. Personal boundaries are more about the way you operate and how much you give and take. And deciding where indeed you draw that line? How are your boundaries? Are you on time, focused, and good at meeting deadlines? Or are you rather slack in your timekeeping and end up rushing to complete projects because you’ve been distracted along the way? A key step to achieving work-life balance is to do work at work, and be home when you’re at home. Be fully present where you are. Aim to keep work and life separate so you can live them both as fully as possible.

Wait a heartbeat before saying yes

It can be so easy to get into the habit of saying yes to everything, especially if by nature you’re a people pleaser. Yet your work can mount up and any hope of balance flies out the window because you’ve said yes to that extra project. Saying no can be challenge: it can feel like a rejection of the person, and you may fear the repercussions on your career by saying no. Yet, if you’re tuned into your purpose, and are clear on where your boundaries lie, you will have more clarity as to which tasks you say yes to, and which you turn down. Say yes to what will enhance your life. Say no to what will burden it (and this is the same for things you take on in your home life as well as at work). Waiting a heartbeat before saying yes can help you assess your priorities and make the right decision for you and your work-life balance.

Exercise in a group to lower your stress levels, says study

Group workouts are better for your mental wellbeing. (pic credit: Adrian Hillman)

Exercise is known to boost your mood and make you feel better: it’s hard to feel low or anxious when you’re working up a sweat in the gym or fitness studio. Exercise builds resilience and helps you release negative stuff you’ve been holding onto. Yet recent research has aimed to quantify this feeling by examining how you exercise and the way it links with your emotional wellbeing and quality of life.

The study – published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Foundation – found exercising on your own means you try harder but won’t necessarily feel any fitter or any less stressed. Work out in a group, however, and this can bring your stress levels down and improve your quality of life. The research was carried out among 69 medical students, a group known to suffer higher stress levels – though the results of the study can be applied to a general population.

Participants chose either a group or individual exercise programme over 12 weeks. Every four weeks they filled out a survey regarding their levels of perceived stress and quality of life in three aspects: mental, physical and emotional.

At the end of the 12 weeks, those participating in structured weekly group exercise showed a 26% reduction in their stress levels. They also reported an improvement in all three quality of life measures: mental (13%), physical (25%) and emotional (26%). They also reported a 26.2 percent reduction in perceived stress levels. In contrast, those who chose their own fitness regime and worked out whenever they wanted – by themselves –  saw no significant changes in any measure, except in mental quality of life (11% increase).

Drawing a conclusion from the findings, Dr Dayna Yorks from the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine, and lead researcher on this study, said: “These findings should not be interpreted as a condemnation of individual exercise. We believe much benefit can be derived from physical exercise of any kind, but the addition of group fitness classes may have additional benefits. The communal benefits of coming together with friends and colleagues, and doing something difficult, while encouraging one another, pays dividends beyond exercising alone.”

How dancing can help keep your brain young

Tap your feet to the beat to stay younger for longer.
(pic copyright: Nataliya Gvozdeva)

Any form of exercise can help stop the brain declining with age. Yet a new study shows that dancing beats other forms of fitness activities for its impact on slowing down the process of brain ageing. Varying the kind of dancing you do – especially if learning new, complicated routines – can enhance that impact.

The research, published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience Journal, asked two groups of elderly volunteers (average age 68) to engage in dancing or in endurance and flexibility training over a period of 18 months. The aim was to observe how these activities would affect the area of the brain that declines with age – the hippocampus, which plays a key role in memory, learning and balance, and can be affected by dementia. The endurance training volunteers repeated the same exercises each week, while the dancers had a new routine to learn.

Lead author of the study Dr Kathrin Rehfeld, based at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, said that the dancers were given routines from dance genres such as Jazz, Latin and Line dancing, and they had to remember their routines without being prompted or helped by their teachers. This extra challenge – remembering, not just working out – showed a greater degree of improvement in balance among the dancers than among the volunteers on fitness programme.

The researchers concluded: “Only the dancers achieved a significant increase in the balance composite score. Hence, dancing constitutes a promising candidate in counteracting the age-related decline in physical and mental abilities.” Not to mention the mood-boosting qualities of being swept across a dance floor in tune with your favourite beat.