Nature lovers already know this, but increasingly more research confirms that nature is good for us. Not only does green improve our air quality, productivity and sense of well-being, recent studies indicated that even a virtual natural environment could help reduce emotional stress. This is an interesting new method to investigate the effect of nature. Virtual experiences could enable controlled and comparable research into behaviour in a natural versus an urban environment.
Stress, city and nature, and mindfulness as intervention
Research from 1991 (Ulrich) has proven that people recover faster from stress if they can look out on or are surrounded by a natural environment. Patients looking onto a mere urban environment got better at a significantly slower pace. In her study, Wesselius (2013) combines the contradiction of natural versus urban environment with a stressful experience and subsequent mindfulness exercise, or not. Mindfulness entails a breathing technique that takes people out of their thinking and leads them to ‘be in the moment’. The research question was if this technique, in combination with experiencing nature, really helps in reducing stress. The results of this study are interesting for counsellors and therapists working to reduce stress.
80 Students in the age group 17-28 participated in the study. They were told they participated in a study looking into the experience of the environment of virtual reality. The study began with a theatre session. There the participant was shown an emotionally taxing video clip of hungry children in Africa. The clip was shown with the accompaniment of music. With this two-minute clip Wesselius wanted to raise the stress level of the participants. Following that, the participant was taken to the so-called Reality Cube, a semi-closed off space. 3-D glasses and a cap made for a ‘real’ virtual environment. The participant was even able to look under the leaves, in the natural environment, so interaction was possible. The participants were divided in four groups:
- 20 students who stayed in natural surroundings without breathing exercises
- 20 who stayed in natural surroundings with breathing exercises;
- 20 who stayed in an urban environment surroundings without breathing; exercises;
- 20 who stayed in an urban environment surroundings with breathing exercises.
The virtual natural environment consisted of a simulation of the butterfly garden in the Emmen Zoo (in the Dutch province of Drente). The urban environment was a simulation of a modern residential neighbourhood without plants or trees. In both virtual environments a sound was also played. The participant remained in one of these surroundings for eight minutes and did his or her breathing exercise, if required.
There were three moments during the test where participants filled out a questionnaire, in order to measure the amount of sadness, anxiety, calm or happiness they felt. These data were used to measure the effect of the virtual surroundings and the subsequent effect of the breathing exercise on these emotional states. Other aspects that were measured were the connection with nature, with their emotions and their attention.
Natural environment is seen as more positive
From this study it appears that people can reduce stress better in a natural environment than in an urban environment. This goes both for negative and for positive emotions. Participants felt happier, more relaxed and less sad after a stay in a natural environment. But the stay in the urban environment could even worsen the emotional stress.
It is more effective to do breathing exercises in nature than in an urban environment. The breathing exercises in both situations led to a stronger awareness of the present moment, but the effects in a natural environment were significantly better. When participants did a breathing exercise in an urban area, the happiness of the people doing the mindfulness exercise was reduced. According to Wesselius it can be annoying if activities do not connect with the surroundings, as was the case here.
Positive emotions, such as happiness, mainly existed in the natural environment and, very noteworthy, when participants did not do a mindfulness exercise, too. Wesselius indicates this can be explained because mindfulness training helps mainly in dealing with negative feelings and thoughts and focus less on strengthening the positive emotions.
Virtual environments are an interesting new way to do research. The benefit is that you can create exactly the same conditions for all participants. Wesselius indicates that there are also limitations to be taken into account for a follow-up study. In this study 80 people of one age group participated; this number could be increased but he participants could also represent other age groups and intellectual or income levels. If that were the case the number and type of participants would be more representative for the average population and the results could be generalised better. Although the clip of the starving children in Africa was chosen on the basis of preliminary research that showed that such a clip would be considered the most shocking, experiments can also be done with situations that are closer to the participants. However, this might cause a different type of stress. Additionally, it should be noted that a virtual situation, including glasses and cap, is not comparable to the actual practice.
Research is sound basis
The results of this study teach us that the combination of nature and mindfulness can give a happy feeling. By taking the time and being or meditating in a natural environment, we can become more aware of our life and reduce our stress levels. For therapists and other care providers this study can be the basis for developing spaces and forms of therapy where nature can play a role.