Ulrich’s Stress Recovery Theory: What It Is And What It Proposes

Ulrich's Stress Recovery Theory: what it is and what it proposes

The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, environments for which humans are not naturally prepared. It is true that we have been living in them for centuries, but the time that our species has spent living in nature is much greater. Our nature is animal, and as animals we want to continue living in nature.

The relationship between stress and the way cities are configured was an aspect that had been little studied until an architect named Roger Ulrich wondered about the effect that natural elements had on health.

Ulrich’s stress recovery theory is a perspective that tells us about the importance of including green elements in urban spaces and, also, how introducing them in recovery contexts such as hospitals or prisons can contribute to the mental health of inmates. Let’s see in more detail what it is about.

Ulrich’s Stress Recovery Theory, proposed by Roger S. Ulrich, is a psychological theory that explores the restorative effects of nature on reducing stress and promoting well-being. Based on the premise that exposure to natural environments can have positive physiological and psychological effects, this theory highlights the importance of nature in mitigating the harmful effects of stress. In this article, we delve into the key concepts and implications of Ulrich’s Stress Recovery Theory.


Ulrich’s Stress Recovery Theory emerged from research conducted in the field of environmental psychology, particularly studies examining the impact of natural versus urban environments on stress levels and cognitive functioning. Ulrich’s seminal study, published in 1984, found that hospital patients with views of nature from their windows experienced faster recovery and required fewer pain medications compared to those with views of urban scenes.

What is Ulrich Stress Recovery Theory?

In his theory, Roger Ulrich points out that, throughout the history of the human species and through natural selection, Our species has evolved to manifest physiological and psychological responses to certain environmental stimuli These responses are involuntary and automatic, and once helped us adapt to the environment. If the stimulus captured was perceived as threatening, the physiological responses of our body that were produced were aimed at carrying out two responses: fight or flight.

There are several physiological responses that occur when we are faced with a stimulus perceived as threatening: the heart rate increases, breathing accelerates, digestion is inhibited and the liver releases glucose, among other responses. All these actions are aimed at that our muscles have enough energy to carry out fight or flight behavior, and be able to handle the perceived threat as best as possible. These are consolidated physiological responses, activated automatically to make the most of time and not waste a single second in a survival situation.

What we have just seen constitutes the core of stress and before, when human beings were wild animals, it used to serve them. These responses were activated in the face of specific threats in the environment, which truly put the individual’s life at risk. Nevertheless, After thousands and thousands of years of changes in our way of living, what we perceive today as threatening really does not have to be so.

There are certain stimuli that objectively should not cause us stress, since they are not threatening, but that is how we perceive them and they cause us all the physiological discomfort associated with stress that we have mentioned before. In fact, stress is activated quite frequently in large cities, places where it is difficult for us to face the same threatening stimuli that our prehistoric ancestors had to face in their lives. In the long term, this damages health.

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Natural environments contribute to reducing stress, as indicated by Ulrich’s theory of stress recovery. Nature helps us feel positive emotions, better manage our emotional tension, and even improves certain cognitive and physical aspects. Observing environments with natural elements such as bushes, grass, flowers, fountains, waterfalls and rivers contributes to feeling positive emotions and feelings of interest, pleasure and calm.

Population density and stress

Key Concepts

Ulrich’s Stress Recovery Theory is based on several key concepts:

  1. Attention Restoration: Natural environments provide a restorative environment that allows individuals to recover from mental fatigue and replenish their cognitive resources. Exposure to nature promotes effortless attention, relaxation, and restoration of cognitive functioning.
  2. Stress Reduction: Nature has a calming and stress-reducing effect on individuals, leading to decreased physiological arousal, reduced levels of stress hormones, and improved mood and well-being. Natural environments evoke positive emotions, feelings of tranquility, and a sense of connectedness to the environment.
  3. Biophilic Response: Humans have an innate affinity for nature, known as the biophilic response, which is characterized by a preference for natural landscapes, elements, and settings. Experiencing nature activates neural pathways associated with reward, pleasure, and relaxation, contributing to stress reduction and psychological well-being.


Ulrich’s Stress Recovery Theory has several implications for urban planning, architecture, healthcare, and environmental policy:

  • Green Spaces: Incorporating green spaces, parks, and natural elements into urban environments can promote stress reduction, mental health, and overall well-being among residents.
  • Healing Environments: Designing healthcare facilities with views of nature, indoor gardens, and natural light can enhance patient outcomes, reduce stress, and facilitate recovery.
  • Workplace Design: Creating work environments with access to nature, such as outdoor workspaces, rooftop gardens, or indoor plants, can improve employee productivity, creativity, and job satisfaction.
  • Environmental Conservation: Protecting natural habitats, preserving biodiversity, and promoting access to natural landscapes can benefit human health and well-being while supporting ecological sustainability.

The impact of population density on stress

Currently, more than 50% of the world’s population lives in cities, and it is expected that by 2050 this percentage will reach 70% Much research has revealed that urban living is associated with an increased risk of suffering from mental disorders compared to rural areas, with about 40% more chances of suffering from depression, double the risk of schizophrenia, a higher risk of anxiety, stress and isolation disorders.

The reason for this is that in large cities like New York, Tokyo or London, it is rare to find yourself in a state of physical and psychological rest On the contrary, the normal thing in cities is to find yourself immersed in environments full of stimuli in the form of information and signals: noises, crowds, traffic, smells, lights… All this, combined with pollution, travel and the perception of insecurity are factors stressors that cause chronic stress situations, with a considerable effect on our health and well-being.

The theory of stress recovery or stress reduction (Stress Reduction Theory) is a perspective proposed by the professor of landscape architecture and urban planning Roger Ulrich in 1983 It may seem curious to know that one of the most interesting theories about stress, a psychological phenomenon, was proposed by an architect but, having understood how cities and the way they are organized affect our emotional state, it makes sense.

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Roger Ulrich proposed his theory interested in a topic that to date had not been explored in much depth: the relationship between physical space and health After having carried out several investigations in this regard, Ulrich proposed this theory, which indicates that stress is closely related to physical spaces. He based this theory on findings in neurobiology of his time, what was known about evolution, and hypotheses about how prehistoric humans had lived.

Its relationship with evolutionary theory

Although we have already introduced it in the previous section, let’s take a trip to the past to better understand Ulrich’s theory of stress recovery. Prehistoric humans were threatened by dangerous animals with much greater strength and abilities. Fortunately, primitive humans had intelligence, enough to be able to manage to escape from ferocious beasts. But this tool, although powerful, had to be in the best conditions to give rise to ingenious ideas. In case of being disturbed, it was necessary to regain calm as soon as possible

Let’s imagine the following situation, which is believed to be common: A human being runs in terror, fleeing from a wild boar that wants to tear him in two. The human sees a tree and decides to climb it, hiding in the top of it. That tree was not only shelter, but also allowed the human to see the surroundings, check if the animal had left and, if not, at least have a safe place to calm down and think about what to do to escape the situation more efficiently.

Even though many years have passed, modern humans are still programmed to confront and flee from large animals. Our appearance will have changed, wearing more clothes and living in buildings, but not our interior Human beings still have an autonomic nervous system. This system has the sympathetic nervous system, which is activated to put us on alert and trigger the stress response; and with the parasympathetic, which is responsible for working to return the body and brain to the state of basal activation, to calm.

Through his research, Ulrich found out that There are various stimuli that impact this parasympathetic system to activate it, including natural stimuli such as vegetation and water These stimuli are what our most primitive ancestors surely saw when they fled from their predators by climbing a tree or crossing a river that the dangerous animal was not able to cross.

The spatial opening

A key aspect of his research that would help the development of stress recovery theory is that Roger Ulrich found that closed spaces, with no exit or with an exit that is difficult to locate, are potentially stressful. An explanation for this would be that they generate the feeling that it is not easy to escape from there, and far from being seen as a refuge, they are perceived as a prison, generating the feeling of imprisonment. In these cases, the system that is stimulated is the sympathetic system, that of alertness and threat, increasing nervousness instead of reducing it.

From this we can draw the conclusion that open spaces are the most appropriate when experiencing stress, being exactly the opposite of the feeling of imprisonment that they will offer us. The first human beings found their ideal habitat in the African savannahs, these places being the ones that offered them the greatest chances of survival because they offered three fundamental aspects to survive: vegetation, water and horizon. That would be the ideal scenario for human life.

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And this seems to have not changed despite several centuries having passed. Today’s human being feels more comfortable and safe when he is in an open space, has water nearby and sees vegetation. Despite our increasingly complex social structures, based in large cities, humans continue to feel like part of nature and depend on it, these types of natural spaces being the ones that return us to those basic evolutionary instincts that have not gone away. .

What Ulrich’s theory of stress recovery points out is that, when you feel stress, the ideal is to find yourself in an environment that is closest to what our ancestors lived in, as close as possible to the savannah with vegetation and water. Being in a space like this our body will begin to feel less stress, activating the parasympathetic system and reducing the activity of the sympathetic system, returning us to calm and serenity. And with that calm and serenity we can think more clearly.

Empirical confirmation of this theory

Although the theory of stress recovery proposed by Roger Ulrich is relatively recent, The suspicion that what is natural has a restorative and therapeutic effect in relieving emotional tension is something quite old In fact, as early as Ancient Rome, people were already aware that being in contact with nature could be beneficial when it came to managing annoyances caused by the noise and stress of urban crowds.

Ulrich’s theory has received support from multiple empirical studies carried out in all types of situations: hospitals, prisons, residential communities, offices, and even schools. In most of them it has been shown that there are benefits to being exposed to nature, even for short periods of time or in the form of isolated natural elements such as a plant or a garden fountain.

Exposure to natural elements is related to lower blood pressure, reduced cortisol levels, less sweating, less muscle tension.. All of them are signs associated with changes in the parasympathetic nervous system, activating it in a more adaptive way. Positive psychological effects such as improved mood, lower anxiety levels, and more feelings of comfort and relaxation were also identified.

What can be extracted from all this is that If you want to have a better state of health and live a better life, it is essential to introduce natural elements into your home, office, school or any other significant environment in our lives. Although the ideal would be to live in the middle of nature, the truth is that modern human beings do not easily have that option but they can bring it to big cities. It is for this reason that in recent years cities have been enabling more green spaces, installing horizontal gardens or opening new parks. The more nature, the less stress.

Ulrich’s Stress Recovery Theory highlights the restorative power of nature in reducing stress, enhancing well-being, and promoting recovery from mental fatigue. By recognizing the therapeutic value of natural environments and incorporating nature into various aspects of urban design, architecture, and healthcare, individuals and communities can reap the benefits of nature’s healing properties.