The Free Prescription Doctors Are Writing to Lower Anxiety and Stress

by Elena Vidrascu, MSc

Preventing America’s Next Drug Epidemic: A Multidisciplinary Approach is a series designed to introduce the many facets of substance abuse, and how integrating the work of multiple partners may be the best approach towards prevention and treatment.

Elena Vidrascu Appalachia Trail

You don’t need to go to Walmart to get this prescription filled. It’s all around us, yet we miss out on it by spending about 93% of each week indoors. Nature is free, accessible, and can improve our physical and mental health.

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When I was a child, I was always playing outside, whether it was digging around in the dirt for potato bugs or climbing the enormous oak tree in the backyard of the house I grew up in. Surprisingly, research shows that children aged 4-11 don’t like nature as much as adults do. However, it might be crucial to expose children to nature throughout development in order to gain appreciation for it later on in life.     

Elena Vidrascu Appalachia Trail

As I grew older and had more responsibilities, I spent less time with nature. After college I started to run outside a lot more, and that’s when I really started to notice a difference in the way I felt. I had always equated that endorphin high and relaxation solely to the cardio from running, but over time I realized that nature largely contributed to that feeling I got. It’s never the same running inside on a treadmill and running outside. I had easily spent entire days outside before, but never more than one night. I was itching to test this nature thing out over a longer period of time.  

And that’s where the 100-mile wilderness trail on the Appalachian Trail (AT) comes in.

It was a daring goal, given my lack of experience and this section of the trail being considered the most rugged of the entire AT. But I knew this would be a perfect time to do this before heading to graduate school. I spent about 3 months researching everything I could about the trail and backpacking, and was fortunate enough to gather advice from friends who had lots of experience. My mom would’ve had a heart attack had I gone alone, so my older sister accompanied me. She had never even camped before! Aside from going 7 miles the wrong way the first day, and having to trail run 4 miles to retrieve our lost map the second day, it was an invigorating, restorative experience. After a couple of days, I noticed that the usual tension I constantly have in my body as stored anxiety dissipated. Upon returning home after the trip, I felt a sense of peace and serenity that I probably haven’t had since I was a child.

The Question Is, Why?

In our normal day-to-day life, we are surrounded by an excess of positive ions in the air. Air conditioning, TVs, cellphones, and fluorescent lights are some examples of man-made creations that emit positive ions. Over-exposure can contribute to fatigue, irritability, and other problems. Negative ions, such as oxygen atoms that gain an electron (that’s it for chemistry, I promise!) will attach to the positive ions in the air and together will fall to the ground. This can help reduce allergens, pollen, odors, and germs. Nature is the best source for creating negative ions. Plants accept the negative energy from Earth’s inherent radiation and emit it through their leaves. Other good sources for ionizing the air to create negative ions include the energy from a thunderstorm, sunlight, and moving water (eg, waterfalls) and air (eg, wind).

Elena Vidrascu Appalachia Trail

Many benefits can be reaped from negative ions. They can help improve mood, increase energy, boost the immune system, and improve concentration. If you remember from an earlier post where I discussed sound healing and brain waves, the alpha waves are those present when the brain is in an awake but relaxed state. When people practice mindfulness and meditation, their brains have an increase in alpha brain waves. Well, negative ions help promote alpha brain wave activity!

Imagine the benefits of being surrounded by negative ions for 10 days straight. Research has shown that just 15 minutes of being in nature can lower stress levels, heart rate, and blood pressure. Longer than 15 minutes can decrease depression and anxiety. Cognitive neuroscientist David Strayer has coined what he calls the three-day effect; three days of wilderness backpacking can boost creativity and problem-solving by almost 50%. Looking at nature’s bounty, such as birds or the sky, promotes a “soft focus” that allows our brains to rest and recover from the “nervous irritation” of city life. It gives us the space we need to piece together ideas and make decisions.

Elena Vidrascu Appalachia Trail

Although nature is free, not everyone is reaping its benefits. When 108,000 women nationwide were investigated in a study looking at the relationship between mortality rate and amount of vegetation and plant life near the women’s homes, researchers found that those who lived in the greenest areas had a 12% lower mortality rate. That’s not a small number. If there’s restricted access to green space in home environments, what if we made it more accessible to children as a preventative effect? Jay Maddock, former Dean of the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University, urges people to commit to spending more time in nature. If stress is a huge trigger for people to overeat and consume alcohol, nature can be one healthy habit to curb these cravings. More research is warranted, but at least for now it’s clear that we should be spending more time outdoors. 

Elena Vidrascu, MSc, recently graduated from Wake Forest University with her MSc in Physiology and Pharmacology. Her primary field of interest is substance abuse, with goals to disseminate information to the public, including addicts and those in recovery, and to influence policy change to push for more integrative approaches towards prevention and treatment. In her spare time, she enjoys playing tennis, hiking, doing puzzles, and cuddling with her kitten Maple.

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