By D. Ryan Schurtz
For The Baltimore Sun
Although I live on the outskirts of a small town, I love cities, especially around Christmastime. They have wonderful public sculptures and interesting architecture highlighted by seasonal decorations and lights. They have professional sports teams and five-star restaurants. They have art museums and theaters. They have interesting shops that sell exotic gifts that are hard to find anywhere else. But city life, even for those of us who are just visiting for a long weekend, is not without its costs.
Cities are full of unnatural stimulation. The sounds of traffic and construction fill cities with noise. They are constantly in motion, full of crowds of unfamiliar people. They are full of steel machines with unnaturally sharp lines and bright colors. They have gleaming gold and silver buildings that crowd out the sky and block the horizon. They are polluted places that smell of exhaust and garbage. In some cities you can walk for blocks without seeing a tree or a shrub. The leafy green of nature has been supplanted with the gray concrete of industry.
For humans, this means the environment is full of synthetic and unnatural things that two hundred years ago were unimaginable, and these things stress us out. They aggravate us, irritate us and add to our worries. (I am looking at you, two-hour traffic jams.)
Scientists have been studying the effects of city living on humans for some time now, and the results of their work do not look good for city dwellers. In crowded environments, people are more hostile and less generous. People who are sick and have hospital bedrooms that do not have views outside tend to take longer to heal and tend to be in a worse frame of mind during their recovery.
Children seem to be particularly sensitive to the negative impacts of urban environments: Kids who grow up in loud city environments (especially those that are close to freeways) tend to develop hearing loss earlier in life and have a slower intellectual development over time. (It is hard to learn when you cannot hear the teacher.) For children born with autism, overcrowded environments, like packed elevators or city buses, can trigger aggression or withdrawal.
Fortunately, there is good news for city residents. Spending time in nature — or even just a more natural environment — seems to counteract the negative impact of unnatural, crowded environments. Kids who live in homes with grass yards, bushes, trees, gardens with flowers and even indoor plants recover more quickly from hardships than those without close proximity to nature. Children with attention deficit disorder who engaged in outdoor activities like fishing, camping and hiking experienced a reduction in some symptoms. Some research has found that even doing something as simple as watching nature videos or walking through a park seems to help people recover after experiencing a distressing event. Nature helps us to heal and to cope.
While it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how exposure to nature helps people feel better, one possibility scientists are currently investigating is that natural environments are less stimulating. This allows our minds the chance to rest and recover. The quiet stillness of the woods and forests gives us the chance to reflect and relieves us from the constant flood of sights and sounds that continually bombard us in the city. Leaving the city environment, even for just a few hours, has been shown to decrease pulse and blood pressure and to lower cortisol levels (a stress hormone).
So, while it certainly will not solve every problem, if you are feeling overwhelmed or burned out this holiday season, getting outside and into nature for a while will help. (Or maybe just cut down a pine tree and put it in your living room.)
Dr. D. Ryan Schurtz is an assistant professor of pyschology at Stevenson University in Stevenson, Maryland.