Studying in the sun

Taking your midterm preparation outside might be the solution to your stress


Mairead Kahn / The DePaulia

“One essential component of our work has been to increase access to the river,” Frisbie said. “We do this in a number of ways, including our paddling program, our trail-building advocacy, and our large-scale volunteer efforts, including Chicago River Day, our annual cleanup event that will draw 2,000 people to more than 65 locations along the Chicago River system on May 11.”

With this year’s final set of midterms around the corner at DePaul, it’s likely students are beginning to get stressed—and looking for ways to cope with it. While naps, ice cream and angrily staring down that study guide for hours on end may work to an extent, the answer to students’ school-induced stress might be right beyond the doors of the library.

“There is a recognition that a short walk in a green space, say before an exam, has been, at least statistically, proven to increase performance,” said Liam Heneghan, an environmental science professor at DePaul. “There are all of these other effects as well: reduction in blood pressure, and even modulating pain and anxiety.”

The advantages of nature exposure described by Heneghan were echoed by Friends of the Chicago River, a local organization dedicated to the conservation of the Chicago River.

“Research has shown that people viewing nature feel more tranquil, peaceful, relaxed and experience improved mental alertness,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River. “A recently released study [done by the National Center for Biotechnology Information] shows how walking or even just sitting in a place that makes one feel connected to nature significantly reduces stress hormone levels.”

The study is loosely based on biophilia, a term coined by E.O. Wilson in 1984 which theorizes that humans have an innate desire to be connected to nature.

“[Biophilia] is a set of ideas at the forefront of [reimagining] the relationship between people and the environment,” Heneghan said. “There’s two components: we’re all aware of the ways in which we might be frightful about nature—like fear of spiders or something—but there might be a genetic element to that, like a built in human nature. The inverse of that is this longing for natural places.”

For cities like Chicago and institutions like DePaul, this research is just getting started. Heneghan says that research into the matter is fairly new in urban areas.

“Over the course of the 20th century, there’s been a little bit of interest in what kind of plants and animals are found in cities, but over the subsequent 20 years—the last generation of research—cities have become extremely interesting to the field,” he said. “Partially because cities are where most people experience nature these days, and for the vast majority of the US, most of the human experience of the natural world is in the constructed environment.”

Heneghan explained that while cities might not have the tropical rainforest-like environments which generally invoke the image of conservation, people might be surprised to learn what they can offer. Chicago is a clear example of just that. Because the city was built when many of the country’s major prairies were disappearing, he says their remains are still right here.

“Strangely, a lot of the highest quality prairie remnants are maintained within sitting distance of the Loop,” Henneghan said.

The Chicago River offers a unique opportunity for urbanites to connect with the natural world; since it runs straight through the city, it’s hard to miss. Frisbie says a lot of what Friends of the Chicago River does is ensuring the river stays that way.

“Increasing access, improving water quality and allowing wildlife to thrive sets Chicago apart and makes us healthier,” she said. “Healthy rivers are good for everyone – not just economically but physically and emotionally, too…We strongly believe the more people get closer to the river, the more people will understand its value to the community and benefit from that access.”

Given the many green spaces the city has to offer, the experts agreed that there’s no excuse for students to deprive themselves of what the natural world has to offer come spring.

“Even just sitting in the quad is still getting a little bit of [a] nature fix,” Heneghan said.