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Nature Soundscapes Reduce Stress

It's fairly well understood that being outdoors in nature is beneficial to us both for the physical exercise and for mental health. It turns out that even listening to short soundscapes is enough to have an effect on the nervous system.

Using artificial and naturalistic familiar and unfamiliar soundscapes and a silent control condition scientists monitored behavioural data via fMRI (task attention and reaction times), subjective data (pleasantness of each soundscape, how distracting they found it, level of rumination, and how focused they felt), as well as heart rate data.

The findings indicated that the naturalistic familiar soundscape affected the balance of the nervous system towards a parasympathetic state (rest and digest) and reduced sympathetic (fight or flight) activation which they suggest allows increased capacity for external attentional monitoring, that is, being able to be more focused and less distracted. The artificial soundscapes were found to slow reaction times, and be less pleasant and more distracting according to the participants. Heart rate variability was found to increase indicating a greater resiliance to stress. Low HRV can be a sign of accumulated fatigue and insufficient recovery.

The study points out that chronic stress can be a contributing factor in cardiovascular disease and cellular aging, obesity, gastrointestinal disorders and mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety but shows that exposure to familiar naturalistic sounds can help balance the nervous system and reduce indicators of stress.

It wasn’t looked at and would be useful to know but presumably repeated exposure would be important in terms of ongoing benefits. What’s interesting about this particular finding is that the participants were inside an fMRI machine listening to five minute soundscapes, which shows that listening to a nature scene on YouTube (like this one) or similar is enough to have an effect on the nervous system. So you don’t even need to leave the house and get into nature to benefit which is good news for those working from home at the moment! Even just a few minutes can have a calming, restorative effect.

Seen on my run: the swans at Radley Lakes near Abingdon.

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