There may be a simple way to manufacture the soothing effects of the great outdoors.
Scientists have known that access to green space helps both mental (paywall) and even perceived physical health. Researchers from the Vrije University Medical Center in the Netherlands found that after college students experienced acute anxiety, looking at images of even just sparse greenery, like rooftop greens or plants lining a sidewalk, lowered stress levels as measured through heart rates. The study was published in the Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
“Finding an effect with regard to such weak, even boring visual stimuli—no spectacular green views, no sound, no smells et cetera—is surprising,’’ Magdalena van den Berg, an occupational health specialist at Vrije University and lead author of the paper, told the New York Times (paywall). She explained that briefly glancing at images of nature may help individuals recover after being momentarily stressed, although it doesn’t do anything to prevent further stress in the future.
For the study, researchers gathered 46 students from the university and asked them to look at images of green spaces in urban environments or more concrete-filled pictures of city life for five minutes. Then, they had students complete mental math using a computer program that told users when they were performing below average to make the students feel stressed. Simultaneously, the scientists monitored participants’ hearts to give them an idea of how pressured they were feeling; higher heart rates translated to higher stress levels. The students repeated these tasks. The heart rates of those who looked at images of greenery after feeling stressed decreased, indicating that they felt calmer. Students who looked at green pictures before the math test, though, still felt the same levels of anxiety as their peers.
Though this study was fairly small, van den Berg told the New York Times she thinks that stress could be lowered even more if people who experienced minor stressors had access to a view of actual green space, or were able to take brief breaks outside. But if you can’t get outdoors for a break during the day, keeping images of greenery is an easy way to try to keep calm.