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You may be overlooking this important key to stress relief

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Did you know that MRI studies measuring brain activity revealed that when participants viewed nature scenes, the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love lit up? And when they viewed urban scenes, the parts of the brain associated with fear and anxiety lit up? In a huge metropolis like Houston, finding nature may take some effort but it could be well worth the search.

Another study at the University of Illinois suggested that tenants of Chicago public housing who had trees and green space around their building knew more of their neighbors, were more concerned with helping each other, and generally got along better than residents living in buildings without trees and green space. The residents in the more natural setting also had lower rates of domestic violence and street crime and were better able to handle the stresses of life.

Researchers in a University of Colorado Boulder study found that an outdoor environment of trees, dirt, and water fostered supportive relationships and feelings of competence in children as well. A variety of settings and 1200 hours of observation yielded interesting results. Teachers at a Baltimore elementary school reported that the students who spent recess playing in the woods returned with longer attention spans. Observations at a Denver school revealed that a student who was known for having a quick temper was unable to be provoked in the green outdoor environment.

Perhaps most notable is the statement of the director of CU-Boulder's Children, Youth and Environments Center, "In more than 700 hours of observations at the Denver school's green outdoor space, zero uncivil behaviors were observed, but there were many incidences of arguments and rudeness indoors, as there are at many schools."

Almost half of the teenage Colorado students who took part in outdoor gardening felt that being outdoors in fresh air, feeling connected to a natural living system, caring for living things, and having time for quiet self-reflection gave them a positive experience.

The University of Colorado Boulder study concluded that playing in natural habitats and trees and not just asphalt and recreation equipment reduces children's stress and inattention. Other health researchers have found that being in nature can have a significant impact on reducing stress, anxiety, anger, fear, blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones, suggesting that nature can be healing as well.

In a study of patients who underwent gallbladder surgery, half had a view of trees outside their hospital window and the other half had a view of a brick wall. According to the physician who conducted the study, the patients with the view of trees tolerated pain better, had fewer complications, and enjoyed an earlier hospital discharge.

In just a few short weeks, vacation trips and the carefree days of summer will be a thing of the past and children will be returning to the class room with its inherent time crunches, assignments, and homework. The school environment can be a source of stress for many students and some schools even offer stress management programs, but nature environments can also offer kids a respite from the pressures of life.

Even in a concrete jungle like Houston, there are many opportunities for families to spend time in nature. A simple backyard garden or pond with trees can become a retreat when you're feeling stressed, but if you don't have a yard, the tree-filled 12 acre Discovery Green park in downtown Houston offers a variety of, mostly free, events and activities, playground, fountains, concerts and more. Just north of Houston, The Spring Creek Greenway protects up to 12,000 acres of forest and offers a variety of wholesome interests for the nature-loving family.

The Houston Parks and Recreation Department provides the After School Enrichment Program free of charge to children between the ages of 6 and 13. For details, call (832) 395-7296, (832) 395-3297, or (832) 395-7261.

Houston Teens Outside With Nature is a year-round program open to ages 14 to 18. Call (713) 284-1997 for details.

Suggested reading:

How trees boost our immune system
Chronic stress may be most reliable indicator of heart attack risk
How stress causes heart disease and cancer
Playing a musical instrument can make you and your kids smarter
Studies show free time is good for kids
Making sure your child's school backpack does not cause injury

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