Nature is frequently prescribed as a way for anxious folks to soothe their elevated emotions. Over at The Atlantic, James Hamblin has written about the rise of eco-therapy: doctors endorsing the healing effects of spending time outdoors. But the mentality applies more casually, too: Feeling stressed at work? Go take a walk! Getting overwhelmed by the daily crunch of urban life? Escape to nature on the weekends! The thinking goes that surrounding yourself by the relative silence and greenery of nature blankets you with a meditative sense of calm. But turning to the noise, crowds, and smog of an urban environment for comfort? Take a hike.
However, a recent paper published in The Society for Consumer Psychology suggests that the restorative qualities of nature might be overblown, and that certain people might find lush trees, chirping birds, and blue skies anything but zen-like. Kevin P. Newman, an assistant professor of marketing at Providence College, and his co-author Merrie Brucks, a marketing professor at the University of Arizona, teamed up to explore whether people who tend to be more neurotic might actually find relief from the very source of their racing thoughts and buzzing brain.
To figure this out, Newman and Brucks asked participants to complete a widely recognized 12-item survey—the Eysenck Peronality Questionnaire—to evaluate neurotic traits, such as anxiety, a tendency to overanalyze, perpetual feelings of fear and threat, envy, and loneliness. Then, participants solved puzzles after being primed with images of either a cityscape or a rural landscape. The puzzles—some of which were unsolvable—were meant to measure self-control and see if one particular environment induced stressful behavior over another.
The researchers discovered that neurotic people found “high-anxiety” situations to be more calming for their minds. In another experiment, Newman and Brucks ran a soothing ocean wave soundtrack followed by a tape of honking horns. Surprise: neurotics didn’t find the blare of taxi cab horns annoying. Actually, they found it rather satisfying.
But, before you box neurotics as city-types and non-neurotics as country mice, remember how much variation can exist within the respective environments. “Not all urban situations are loud and busy, and not all natural ones are calm and quiet,” Newman says, offering city parks and ziplining as examples of the dichotomy at play here. “A highly neurotic person can still enjoy nature, but maybe their ideal version of a hike includes more boulders, a trail run, some animals.” In other words, when it comes to alleviating anxiety, it’s not the environment so much as what you do in it.
So, do cities and small towns inherently attract separate types of people? Newman speculates this could possibly explain regional stereotypes: Midwestern niceties, the Southern drawl, West Coast chill, Northeastern pent-upness. And Newman says businesses and urban planners should pay attention to these qualities: It might make sense for a national park to showcase the active aspects of mountaineering or whitewater rafting for the Northeast, for example, while Midwestern parks might feature vistas and sunsets.
How’s a person to find relaxation in their particular environment? Newman suggests taking stock of your personality and looking for ways to complement it. A neurotic city dweller can—and should—access a sense of calm without running away to the distant mountains and verdant forests of another clime. Perhaps a stroll through rush-hour foot traffic might be soothing, or a quick dive into a crammed bookshop. The non-neurotic can seek out city parks or early-morning jogs through winding trails, a museum on a weekday afternoon, even a coffee shop nook to escape.
In other words, if you’re neurotic and feel like you need a break in the middle of the afternoon, try slipping outside to the honking horns. It might be just the mental tonic you're looking for.