Scientists are unanimous: nature plays a significant role in our wellbeing. But not everyone resides near a forest or by the sea, which means where you live has the potential to influence your mental health.
Fortunately, this is not irreparable – a new study suggests that even virtual immersion in nature could be enough to help people reduce stress and relax, especially teenagers.
In 2021, in the midst of the pandemic, the World Health Organization estimated that 14% of young people aged 10-19 experience mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety and behavioural problems. This has prompted health authorities to call for strategies to prevent these disorders and meet the needs of this young population.
To that end, researchers from the Department of Psychology at the University of Exeter in the UK investigated the influence of nature on the mental health of 76 teenagers and young adults aged 18-25.
The aim was to determine whether virtual immersion in nature, as opposed to virtual immersion in an urban environment, could have a positive effect on their well-being, on par – or almost on par – with a real walk in the woods. It’s a surprising concept, but one that could prove helpful to those who live in cities with little or no access to blue and green spaces.
Participants were thus divided into two groups. The first was invited to watch a short six-minute nature video with immersive visual and sound features of blue and green spaces, featuring a walk in a forest by a river.
The second group watched a video depicting an urban environment – a journey on a London Underground train – under equivalent conditions such as duration and exposure to environmental sounds.
According to the findings published in the journal Nature: Scientific Reports, the scientists observed numerous positive changes in the group subjected to virtual immersion in nature, on several levels.
Not only did the nature video generate a “significant reduction” in stress in the participants, it also increased relaxation and positive moods. This stands in contrast to immersion in an urban environment.
Note, however, that the videos evoking a walk in a forest as well as the London Underground had no impact on depressive states.
“Our findings support both of the general hypotheses that brief exposure to an immersive nature video, relative to an urban comparison condition, would reduce stress and improve indices of mental wellbeing in adolescents,” the researchers explained.
The findings could contribute to the development of new strategies to support adolescents with mental health disorders who do not have access to green and blue spaces. This is necessary, if not indispensable, considering that 50% of mental disorders emerge during adolescence, and 75% occur before the age of 24.
But the researchers also pointed out certain limitations – notably that these virtual immersions are no substitute for the real thing.
“We recognise that virtual exposure to natural environments may have value in improving mental wellbeing and even preventing mental illness, and may be appropriate for those struggling to get outside or who are agoraphobic, socially phobic, or have depression-related low motivation,” they said.
“However, we do not suggest that virtual nature exposure should typically be a replacement for the real-world experience. Instead, virtual exposure could be used as a self-help intervention, an adjunct to therapy or reserved for those for whom accessing nature is challenging, whether due to individual factors or systemic inequities.”