Nature-Based Imagery Helps People Feel Less Anxious

You don't have to go outside to tap into nature's calming power.

Posted Nov 06, 2018

AntonioGuillem/iStock
Source: AntonioGuillem/iStock

Spending time in nature can help allay symptoms of anxiety, a growing body of research indicates. But getting outside isn’t always practical, especially as the days grow shorter and the weather turns colder. Fortunately, there may be a simple workaround. A study published in October in Frontiers in Psychology shows that mentally picturing a nature scene in a vivid, multisensory way can help ease anxious feelings.

What was previously known

Past research had shown that a real-world connection with nature may help keep anxiety at bay. Study coauthor Eric Brymer, Ph.D., a reader in nature and health at Leeds Beckett University in England, says, “We have found a link between feeling highly connected to nature and low levels of anxiety.”

Brymer notes that experiencing nature may have benefits for both state anxiety (anxiety in response to a specific situation that’s viewed as threatening) and trait anxiety (a general proclivity toward feeling anxious). “Being physically active in a nature setting seems to be correlated with lower state and trait anxiety,” he says. “We have also found that state anxiety can be lowered by going into nature.”

What the new study revealed

The new study included 48 adults with symptoms of anxiety, who took part in 10-minute guided imagery sessions led by an audio recording. During the sessions, participants were asked to mentally transport themselves to a nature scene or an urban scene of their own choosing. To make this imagined experience more vivid, participants were asked to:

  • Visualize the colors and shapes around them
  • Engage other senses, such as smell and touch
  • Picture themselves moving and interacting with the scene

Before and after the guided imagery sessions, participants filled out questionnaires that measured their anxiety levels. Both nature-based and urban-based imagery reduced their state anxiety scores, but the effect was enhanced when nature imagery was used.

Our intuition about nature

If that’s exactly the result you would have guessed, you’re not alone. We seem to intuitively grasp the anxiety-reducing power of nature, even when it’s only an imagined encounter with the natural world.

Consider the participants in this study, for instance. They were explicitly asked to mentally conjure up either a natural setting or an urban setting of their choosing. In the urban condition, they were even given examples such as “a house you like, a new apartment building, or a shopping mall.” Afterward, they were asked to provide keywords describing the imagined scene they had picked for themselves.

Many people in the urban condition found ways to incorporate nature into their imagery, even though they weren’t asked to do so. They reported choosing imagery such as a “tree-lined street” or being “outside an apartment building in a garden.”

To Brymer, the implication is clear: “People seem to know that being in nature, seeing images of nature, imagining nature, etc., has anxiolytic [anxiety-reducing] potential.”

Common knowledge vs. scientific evidence

While the results of this study may not be terribly surprising, they are nonetheless important. According to the researchers, this was the first study to investigate nature-based guided imagery as an intervention for anxiety. As such, it’s a key step in not only validating people’s beliefs, but also exploring how the calming power of nature can best be harnessed for therapeutic purposes.

As Brymer says, “While nature imagery and experiences work for anxiety, the reasons are complex. We need to know more about how it works to have the best opportunity of designing good interventions.”

References

Nguyen, J., & Brymer, E. (2018). Nature-Based Guided Imagery as an Intervention for State Anxiety. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1858. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01858