Research Reveals a New Way to Stop Ruminating

What we can learn from nature

Posted Aug 05, 2015

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Is there a voice in your head filled with incessant criticism and worry, pressuring you into chronic stress, to do more, work more, buy more—anything to silence the inner critic? If so, you’re not alone.

I’ve heard this voice for years. Lots of people do, and we’ve all tried different ways to silence it. Janet blocks it with workaholic behavior. When she’s absorbed in her work, rushing to meet a deadline, she can’t hear the voice. Carol blocks it with compulsive caretaking, cramming her schedule with other people’s needs, rushing through her days in a blur of activity until finally collapsing in exhaustion. Joe blocks the voice with technology, incessantly texting, checking Facebook, and surfing the Internet, while his brother Jim and his college roommates try drowning out the voice with binge drinking. Jon Kabat-Zinn (2013) calls such distractions the “doing mode.” But this incessant “doing” only blocks the inner critic temporarily. The moment we stop, the rumination starts up again with a vengeance. And studies have found that rumination is a risk factor for anxiety and depression (Bratman et al, 2015).

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The good news is that simply walking in nature can silence the inner critic and improve our health. In recent research at Stanford University, Gregory Bratman and his colleagues conducted an experiment with 38 healthy men and women, working professionals in their mid-twenties. They were randomly assigned to a 90-minute walk—either down the El Camino Real in Palo Alto, a busy multi-lane road with heavy traffic,  or on a path along the rolling hills around Stanford, with views of oak trees, shrubs, and sky. Each group filled out surveys to measure rumination as well as having brain scans before and after the 90-minute walk.

Remarkably, the group that walked out in nature had significantly lower rumination and decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with negative self-referential thought and feeling. While previous research has shown that exercise can improve mood and decrease depression (Rethorst & Trivedi, 2010), both groups in the Stanford study engaged in similar physical exercise for the same length of time, but only the nature group showed the decrease in rumination and corresponding decreased activity in the related region of the brain.

Nature restores and heals us. Many of us feel more relaxed and renewed after walking outside or gardening. As far back as the Middle Ages, philosophers and poets have written about the restorative effects of nature (Dreher, 2001). Today, research has begun to reveal why. The natural world offers a healthy alternative to the stressors in our busy lives, restoring our energies and renewing our minds. The next time you find yourself stressed out or assaulted by the inner critic, try stepping outside, taking a deep breath, and looking at the trees, the hills, and the sky.

References

Bratman, G. N. , Hamilton, J. P., Hahn, K. S., & Daily, G.C. (2015). Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. PNAS, 112, 8567-8572.

Dreher, D. (2001). Inner Gardening: A Season Path to Inner Peace. New York, NY: HarperCollins Quill.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Rethorst, C. D.& Trivedi, M. H. (2010). Evidence-based recommendation for the prescription of exercise for major depressive disorder. Journal of Psychiatric Practice, 19, 204-212.

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Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, positive psychology coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.

Visit her web site at www.dianedreher.com