top of page

Feeling Stressed Too Often? Take it Outside

Research Says Being in Nature Counters Perceptions of ‘Not Enough Time’

 Why does time seem to slow down while out in nature?  ©istock
Why does time seem to slow down while out in nature? ©istock

“There isn’t enough time in a day.” “I ran out of time.” “Who has time for that?”


Does this messaging sound familiar? In today’s stress-fueled world, a shortage of time is part of life for most people. But new research says simple relief may be available for humanity’s disordered sense of time. The solution could be as simple as stepping into the sunlight. 


Time in Nature is Different

A recent article published in the British Ecological Society’s journal, People and Natureproposes at least two ways nature affects people's sense of time: altered perception and altered perspective. Author Ricardo Correia examines and contributes to a considerable body of scientific evidence regarding the mental and physical health benefits associated with nature immersion and being away from the hustle and bustle of urban settings.


Correia, an assistant professor of the Biodiversity Unit at the University of Turku in Finland, says the concept of “time scarcity” is diminished when people do things in a natural setting—and this contributes to one’s overall well-being.  

Altered Perception

Most people have experienced an altered sense of time while immersed in an activity they love; the phrase “Time flies when you’re having fun” is more than a cliché. In contrast, when someone is anxious, bored, in pain, or otherwise uncomfortable, time seems to drag.


Of course, measured clock time is moving at the same rate in all instances, but human perception of time changes based on what a person is doing. Correia explains, “Time perception is shaped by various contextual factors, including the contents of the time period and the cognitive, emotional, and bodily characteristics of the experiencer.” In other words, a person’s perception of time is subjective, depending on how and where they are—both inside and out. 


“People who spend time in nature tend to overestimate the duration of that experience and show a more positive outlook of the past, present, and future.”


The reasons behind the phenomenon of an altered sense of time while in nature are not completely understood, but it has been shown that “people who spend time in nature tend to overestimate the duration of that experience and show a more positive outlook of the past, present, and future, with less focus on a single time perspective,” writes Correia. 


In a 2015 study of 45 college students who were asked to complete certain tasks while exposed to images of natural or urban settings, those who were exposed to natural settings estimated the duration of the session to be longer. The authors suggested that the differences may be due to shifts in attention or arousal between urban and natural places. 


A similar study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology in 2017 asked participants to walk in an urban setting and in a natural setting. The perceived duration of a walk in an urban setting was mostly accurate, while the length of the nature walk was overestimated. The authors similarly proposed that shifts in attention and mood explained observed differences. 

Different Perceptions of time.  ©pexels

Different Perceptions of time.  ©pexels

Different Perceptions of time.  ©pexels

Taking into account other comparable studies, Correia sees an indication “that time is experienced differently and is perceived as longer in nature compared to urban environments.”


Altered Perspective

Besides altering a person’s perception of time duration, being in nature also affects their time perspective. A 2015 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences compared participants who took a 90-minute walk in nature with those who took a similar walk in a city. The participants were then asked about their feelings of rumination (focusing on negativity from the past). Those who walked in nature reported decreased rumination. Brain scans of the nature-walk participants also showed reduced neural activity in the part of the brain linked to risk for mental illness as opposed to those who walked through an urban setting. 


Mental and Physical Health

A United Nations report has projected that up to 70% of all people will be urban dwellers by 2050. While city life has its advantages, it corresponds to less time spent in nature. The results of urbanization have been associated with increased levels of anxiety disorders and depression. On the other hand, there are numerous studies showing measurable health benefits after time spent in nature, which may be one of the most significant findings of these types of studies. 


The results of urbanization have been associated with increased levels of anxiety disorders and depression.

The mental health benefits of time in nature include superior attention, memory, and impulse inhibition, along with increased feelings of subjective well-being. Researchers have also characterized the ways in which images and sounds from nature can lead to decreased stress and negative emotions after being exposed to stressful stimuli. There is ample scientific evidence to support what people who camp, hike, garden, forest bathe, and seek green spaces for relaxation already know—time in nature bestows psychological benefits.

Time spent in nature offers psychological and physical benefits.  ©pexels

Time spent in nature offers psychological and physical benefits.  ©pexels

Time spent in nature offers psychological and physical benefits.  ©pexels

The therapeutic benefits of time in nature also extend to our physical bodies. An article from UC Davis Health points out that being in nature can reduce cortisol levels, muscle tension, heart rate, and blood pressure, and can increase vitamin D levels that boost blood cells, bones, and the immune system. 


Park Prescriptions

Thanks in part to the evidence such studies have provided, medical doctors are even giving out “park prescriptions“ to encourage patients with frenetic lives and myriad ailments to soak up some of nature’s benefits. But how much time does the prescription take from an already hectic schedule where “time deficit” is one of the ailments? 


It turns out that the benefits of natural spaces come with small doses. Dr. Brent Bauer, a general internal medicine physician at Mayo Clinic, suggests two hours each week.


In a 2021 article published in Prevention, Dr. Rachel Hopman-Droste, a neuroscientist at Northeastern University, was interviewed about her “20-5-3 rule” for spending time outside to reduce stress and be healthier. She recommends 20 minutes outside three days a week (with no cell phone); 5 hours in semi-wild nature every month; and 3 days off the grid each year. 


Green Spaces

Most people spend the majority of their time in buildings or vehicles and it may not feel convenient to carve out time and get out into green spaces. The hope is that enjoying the benefits of nature in small chunks will help make it a way of life.

This may be achieved by walking down the tree-lined side of the street or putting those toes in the grass. Taking time to sit outside and listen to birds sing or watch clouds could help alter a mood.

Doses of nature can be large or small.  ©Ayub Rahman/Pexels
Doses of nature can be large or small. ©Ayub Rahman/Pexels

What about popping outside during a break from work or taking lunch outside under a tree? Find a grassy, tree-filled park for the family to play in and explore (a pond or stream is a plus). Find nearby hiking trails, botanical gardens, and nature conservancies. Go camping.

Stargazing.  ©istock
Stargazing. ©istock

No matter how one gets out there, it’s important to exhale deeply and connect with surroundings through all the senses. Be mindful. As relaxation and rejuvenation kick in, see if there’s a sense within of slowing down, almost as if time grows on trees.


While researchers continue to investigate what it is that links time in nature to wellness and a person’s sense of time, there is enough evidence to inform city planning and infrastructure design. More green spaces and easily accessible natural experiences are needed to ensure whole health for an increasingly urban society.

New York’s Central Park.  ©David Shankbone/Wikimedia  CC BY-SA 3/0
New York’s Central Park. ©David Shankbone/Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3/0


It is essential to unplug from technology and envision bridging the gap between one’s hurried self and the rhythm of the natural world. Not just for the boost to mental and physical health, but for a higher understanding of human consciousness and connectedness to all things.


Professor Chris Laszlo at Case Western Reserve University pointed out in a 2022 article that quantum physics suggests that “at the most infinitesimal level of the universe, there is a connected and coherent unified field, a field of energy and information that connects everything. … Along with these fields of energy, vibrational fields of energy connect everything, not just metaphorically—but actually.”


One hypothesis of Laszlo’s research is that people who experience a greater sense of connection to nature are more likely to care for others and future generations. They might gain stronger pro-social and pro-environmental behaviors. If this is true, it has much deeper implications for the need to get outdoors—it not only changes a person’s health in this lifetime, but the wellness of everyone around them, those that will come after them, and Earth. 


*Julie Peterson writes science-based articles about holistic health, environmental issues, and sustainable living from her organic farm in Wisconsin


Join Our Community

Sign up for our bi-monthly environmental publication and get notified when new issues of The Earth & I  are released!


bottom of page