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2013 Faculty & Staff News

Longwood lecturer’s research reveals solutions for the stressed-out mind

March 12, 2013

Dr. Catherine Franssen
Dr. Catherine Franssen

If you’re stressed out, a Longwood University lecturer says that a combination of being in nature and exercise can work wonders on the worried mind.

"What is it about a hike in the woods or a stroll on the beach that makes us feel better?" asks Dr. Catherine Franssen, who presented research on the topic at the 2012 Society for Neuroscience Convention. "Our environment has an effect on how we behave, how we deal with stress and how happy we are. Exposure to the natural world helps put everyday stresses over things like paying bills and getting stuck in traffic in proper perspective.

To find out how natural environments help melt away anxiety, Franssen studied mice and rats in very different habitats—some whose cages were filled with sticks and leaves and others whose cages featured plastic toys. The animals exposed to natural elements were bolder and more exploratory, she said.

"The animals that interacted with the more natural environment engaged in a lot more high-risk, high-reward behavior," said Franssen. "Rats, who don’t like to be in water, were actually holding their breath and diving down in an aquarium to look for a way out, unlike the rats housed in standard cages."

But simply spending time in nature isn’t the only solution to easing the strains of everyday life. Exercising is an important piece of the puzzle, said Franssen. Her experiments with students at Longwood have shown that participating in extreme activities like rock climbing have lowered the stress students feel over exams.

"Exercising puts everything into perspective," said Franssen. "When people are faced with stress, the same hormones are released, but in very different ways and at different times. Engaging in different types of activities helps balance your body’s response to different stresses."

So when you go to the beach, go for walks, said Franssen. It will help you when you get back to work. She plans to continue the experiments to pinpoint the neural functions that respond to the natural environment. "Everyone knows that feeling," she said. "When you come back from vacation and little things don’t seem to bother you as much. I want to find out what happens in the brain to give you that feeling."
 
[Stressed Out Image Courtesy of ShutterStock]