Category Archives: Science!

Birding as stress relief

Sorry I’ve been so silent lately.  I’m preparing for my PhD dissertation defense this upcoming Wednesday, May 21st.  I have already sent out my written dissertation to my committee. Now I need to give a talk explaining the details and relevance of the last five years’ work!  I’m stressed.  The process is not designed for failure, but I want to end my PhD on a strong note, with a clear and interesting talk.


A relaxing view of nature.

A relaxing view of nature. 

I have still had some time for birding.  In times like these, I realize how therapeutic birding is in my life.  After 3 or 4 days without much natural history observation, I’m wound tight.  And when I finally get outside, I can feel my self uncoiling and opening up again.  As crazy green big year birder Dorian Anderson has suggested, birding is great therapy!  I’ve particularly enjoyed catching up with some nice migrant flocks at Coyote Hills Regional Park in Fremont, including plenty of Swainson’s Thrushes and a nice mix of flycatchers.  I even found my first SF Bay Area Hammond’s Flycatcher!  Here are two ebird checklists from last week.

This birding got me wondering if people have done any research about birding and stress relief.  I came upon one particular approach to this question — how does experience with nature help someone recover from a stressful experience?  In an hour of reading, I’ve found tons of papers on the topic.  In one classic study, university undergraduates were shown a stressful video (about workplace injuries).  Apparently this video has been used in multiple studies and is known to cause a physiological stress response.  After the video, students were shown either videos of nature, a mall with pedestrian traffic, or a street with vehicular traffic.  Researchers took measures of heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension at three time points: the onset of the experiment, after the stressful video, and after the second video (the ‘treatment’ video).  At these time points they also recorded the participants’ self-ratings of fear, aggression, and positive affect, as well as a few other factors.

The results were stark.  Participants who had viewed the nature videos showed greater decreases in blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension after the stress.  They also showed greater decreases in fear and aggression, and a greater increase in positive affect.  So even this relatively minimal natural experience, something I would hardly categorize as time spent enjoying nature, produced relaxing effects at both a physiological and emotional level.  Now I know, I’m not just procrastinating when I stop for some birding on the way to work.  I getting myself into a nice relaxed state for maximum productivity!


photo credit: James Wheeler via photopin cc