Calming Stress with Virtual Nature

As the developed world navigates towards a technological existence, it is being engineered to succeed without the need for society, interdependence or Nature. Our social circles are becoming virtual and human to human contact is reduced to characters emerging on an electronic screen, devoid of emotion, prosody and personality. A human hug is substituted with emojis. The community of old has metamorphosed into a global netosphere that shatters boundaries of culture and identity. Oxytocin, the hormone released in the setting of human touch and emotion, that increases trust within and competition across tribes, is no longer offering its customary soothing balm in the setting of psychosocial stress. In its absence, one’s own tribe no longer holds appeal over an alien tribe, aiding the surrender of boundaries and distinctions in favour of a globalised but lonely existence.

Why Do Rates of Depression Vary Across Cultures?

In the midst of this paradigm shift in the way we live, populations rooted in diverse cultural mindsets appear to react differently to change. Some countries seem more vulnerable to mental illness than others. Despite being one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world, the lifetime prevalence of depression in Japan is 3%, compared to 17% in the United States. Japan has managed to retain features of its ancient culture despite accruing immense wealth over the latter part of the last century. A closer examination of these features sheds some light on how a country that has achieved such extraordinary success can remain unblemished by the scars of affluence. One such feature is the relationship

with Nature.

Japanese Love for Nature

Their Shinto heritage has given the Japanese a deep respect and gratitude for Nature. This is reflected in every aspect of Japanese life including in the setting of stress-resilience. The Japanese soak in natural hot springs or ‘Onsens’ and take therapeutic ‘forest baths’ or ‘Shinrin-yoku’ in order to reduce stress levels and rejuvenate their minds. The sights, sounds and even the scents of various woods and herbs in the forest, are said to have an invigorating effect.

There is emerging empirical evidence that supports this practice. Nature, its sights and sounds – even on a virtual platform – can reduce stress reactivity, improve stress resilience and increase mental calmness.

Empirical Evidence

In one small study, some college students were divided into three groups and made to wait for fifteen minutes in a waiting room-like area. One group listened to pleasant classical music, another listened to a recording of the sound of ocean waves while the third sat in silence. The group listening to the ocean wave recording had a lower pulse rate, less muscle tension and reduced self-reported stress after just seven minutes, compared to the other two groups. Classical music did not relax the students to the same degree as the Nature recording. Another small study has shown how listening to natural sounds (from a virtual reality forest) enhances recovery after a stressful experience. According to a randomized crossover study, people recover faster from an acutely stressful experience if they have been viewing images of Nature beforehand. Looking at Nature raises vagal activity even if you are only looking at a picture.

See the Opportunity in Change

Although our technological world is pulling us away from Nature into a virtual reality, we have control over what this reality is. We can turn it into a unique and ingenious opportunity to reconnect with the Nature that our ancestors left behind. One brilliant example is the way technology can be used to simulate Nature sounds in a critical care setting in hospitals, which reduces agitation and anxiety in patients under mechanical ventilator support. Technology enables people to tap into some of the benefits of Nature, where they would otherwise be denied access.

Virtually Real Nature

The empirical data from small studies show that sights and sounds of Nature have a powerful calming effect – which is reinforced when both sights and sounds are simultaneously presented in a virtual reality setting. As more studies materialize, we might one day see a virtual reality ‘Nature room’ incorporated as standard practice in workplaces and homes. Hospital waiting rooms can become havens of tranquillity and patients about to undergo surgery might one day imagine they are being treated by a waterfall on an exotic island. As technology progresses, virtual reality may meander beyond sight and sound and incorporate scents and even tactile stimuli.

Taking a walk down to your local park and spending some time surrounded by greenery at least once a day is a potent stress antidote that costs nothing, is within easy reach and has an instant effect. It is likely to make you calmer, cope better with stress and lift your mood.

References

Annerstedt M, Jönsson P, Wallergård M, Johansson G, Karlson B, Grahn P, Hansen AM, Währborg P. Inducing physiological stress recovery with sounds of nature in a virtual reality forest--results from a pilot study. Physiol Behav. 2013 Jun 13;118:240-50.

Brown DK, Barton JL, Gladwell VF. Viewing Nature Scenes Positively Affects Recovery of Autonomic Function Following Acute-Mental Stress. Environmental Science & Technology. 2013;47(11):5562-5569.

Gladwell VF, Brown DK, Barton JL, Tarvainen MP, Kuoppa P, Pretty J, Suddaby

JM, Sandercock GR. The effects of views of nature on autonomic control. Eur J

Appl Physiol. 2012 Sep;112(9):3379-86.

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