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How to use the benefit of nature to reduce anxiety at work

Do these things when you don’t have time to take a long walk in the woods.

How to use the benefit of nature to reduce anxiety at work
[Photo: Matias Islas/Unsplash; Gustav Gullstrand/Unsplash]

If you’ve ever experienced anxiety symptoms at work, you know how disruptive they can be to your performance. While it can feel incredibly isolating to work through anxiety, it’s a pretty prevalent issue in American workplaces. One study found that 34% of American workers have felt anxious or nervous because of stress. That figure increases for millennials (40%) and generation Zers (54%). However, only slightly more than half of those people respond to medication trials, and only a third see the anxiety go away entirely. That’s why managing anxiety in the workplace requires us to look beyond conventional and traditional methods.

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Nature-based interventions are one such approach. Several recent studies have demonstrated that spending time in natural spaces can confer distinct psychological advantages. For example, living near the coast, visiting botanical gardens, and strolling through a local park can improve your health and well-being. Just two weeks of regular outdoor activities can have a net positive effect on people.

The psychological benefits of being outdoors are clear, but many professionals have to spend most of their days indoors. If you’re looking for approaches to ease your daily stress, finding nature indoors can prove helpful. Here are three ways you can bring nature to you when you’re stuck at the office.

1. Use imagination and guided imagery

Think of a situation in nature that you find calming. It might be the leaves rustling through a quiet forest at dawn, the waves crashing on the beach under a bright orange sunset, or the various multicolored birds visiting the feeder outside your window. Imagining those sights and sounds is almost as good as being there.

Visualizing a natural scene impacts the brain similarly to seeing and experiencing the scene. They’re not the same situations, but imagination can be a useful substitute. Guided imagery has its own advantages because people can ignore unpleasant stimuli in the environment. For instance, walking in the woods might be relaxing, but less so if a bee is chasing you.

Research shows that visualization can reduce speech anxiety. And numerous studies have demonstrated the anxiety-reducing benefits of guided imagery in nursing students learning to perform injections, in patients undergoing cardiac surgery or joint surgery, and in children with asthma and anxiety disorders.

Even just 30 minutes of guided imagery can help reduce anxiety. To use guided imagery, try out apps like Headspace or Calm. You can also simply close your eyes and recall the image that calms you most.

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2. Bring in an aquarium or plant

Have you ever found yourself mesmerized by an aquarium? Whether you’re attracted to the fish darting back and forth in a mass of blurred colors or the tranquilizing sound of the water bubbling through the filter, there’s something about an aquarium that brings a feeling of serenity.

A few studies demonstrate that keeping an aquarium and watching live fish can improve well-being, including a reduction in anxiety. One study found that varying the species of plants and fish may confer an additional advantage. Also, interacting with indoor plants can reduce psychological stress, increase attention, promote relaxation, and reduce mental fatigue.

Consider buying an aquarium or indoor plants for your workplace. If money is an issue, consider asking your coworkers to help chip in. You can also mention the above studies so that people will understand why you’re suggesting this. If all else fails, move your desk to where you can see something natural outside. This, too, can help reduce anxiety.

3. Build natural downtime into your schedule

When a piece of technology is dragging or not responding to certain commands, the typical solution is to reboot it. Do the same for your brain. In our technology-obsessed culture, most people take a short break by scrolling through their phones. However, that doesn’t help much with letting your mind restart because the constant electronic stimuli can trigger or exacerbate your anxiety. There is a real benefit to putting the devices down.

In my book, “Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind,” I describe how downtime can refresh your brain and help you to become more creative. Studies have demonstrated that outdoor exercise—called “ecotherapy” or “green exercising“—can decrease anxiety. Shinrin-yoku, also known as forest bathing, is the “traditional Japanese practice of immersing oneself in nature by mindfully using all five senses.” It’s been associated with feelings of relaxation and awe, both of which may help your anxiety. Being immersed in nature can also improve your creativity.

Build time into your day for quick nature walks, even if it’s just the last 20 minutes of your lunch break. Not only will the unfocused time help you feel more refreshed, but it will also help you to calm down.

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Natural interventions might not take your stressors away, but they can decrease the anxiety that these stressors bring. Try out these tips and see how your anxiety symptoms improve.


Srini Pillay, M.D., is the CEO of NeuroBusiness Group and the award-winning author of numerous books, including “Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind,” “Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear,” and “Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders.”

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