Imagine this: You wake up early for a walk on a far-away beach. Not a single other person is in sight. You take off your sandals and press your bare feet into sand as soft as flour. The wind rustles the tall grasses as a deep orange sun creeps up over the sand dunes. You close your eyes and listen to the waves ebb and flow, the waters gently pushing foam and seaweed up the shoreline. Seagulls call in the distance, and a chirping sandpiper pokes through wet sand for food.
Hopefully, you feel a little more relaxed after dreaming about that getaway. Just think about how much better you would feel if you actually took a trip out into nature. In fact, research proves that it’s not just a feeling. According to a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, natural sounds improve health, ease feelings of pain, reduce general feelings of annoyance, and significantly lower stress levels.
Researchers from the University of Michigan analyzed data from 18 different publications to determine whether and how much natural sounds improve health outcomes. They found that on average, sounds like falling rain and chirping birds significantly boosted mental and physical health by lowering stress, reducing pain, and sharpening cognitive performance.
Analysts also examined how the sounds of human activity, such as traffic, talking, and construction affect the experience inside a national park. They found that people who frequented urban parks or parks with high visitation still benefited from the experience despite sounds of other people and traffic, because they still heard and enjoyed natural sounds from animals, wind, and water.
Given the wide body of research on the health benefits of exposure to nature, the researchers from the University of Michigan could safely assume that more time we spend in nature, no matter the exact location, the better off we are. But why might nature be as healing as studies have demonstrated?
Two different theories can offer an explanation: attention restoration theory and stress recovery theory. Attention restoration is the idea that spending time in nature reduces mental fatigue and replenishes concentration because the brain doesn’t have to continuously focus on a specific stimulus or task, like a job. The theory also states that nature increases pleasure and feelings of relaxation through unconscious, cognitive processes.
Stress recovery theory is slightly different. It is based on the idea that the brain perceives nature as less threatening than an urban environment and doesn’t force the mind to drown out noise, because there are far fewer stimuli. The theory suggests, then, that the mind recovers simply because the majority of things that cause stress are taken out of the equation.
Whether one or both theories are true, it’s clear that spending time in nature can do wonders for your mental health. Of course, not everyone can simply hop on a flight to a remote destination and shut off their electronics for a week. If you’re hoping to lower your stress and anxiety levels quickly at home, turn on audio of rainfall or chirping birds in a forest.
If you’re looking to customize your relaxation time, keep this in mind: Water sounds tend to improve mental health and positive outlook, and bird-and-water sounds tend to reduce stress and annoyance levels. So, the next time you’re at a park or enjoying nature audio at home, try sitting down, closing your eyes, and just enjoying what you hear.