Nature videos boost adolescent mental health: Study shows reduced stress and improved mood

In a recent study published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers investigate the mental health effects of brief nature videos in adolescents.

Adolescents exposed to the nature videos exhibited improved stress, affect, mood, relaxation, nature connection, and nature spirituality outcomes. These findings lend support to nature-based interventions (NBIs) as easily accessible preventive measures for mental health conditions, a growing concern in today's world.

Study: The effect of brief exposure to virtual nature on mental wellbeing in adolescents. Image Credit: Krivosheev Vitaly / Shutterstock.com

 Study: The effect of brief exposure to virtual nature on mental wellbeing in adolescents. Image Credit: Krivosheev Vitaly / Shutterstock.com

Mental health burden and NBIs

Mental health disease is a common and growing burden today, with an estimated economic cost of over £118 billion annually in the United Kingdom alone. Depression and anxiety are the most prevalent manifestations of mental health disorders, with depression associated with a high degree of recurrence of over 50% throughout a patient's life.

The age of adolescence is debatable, with the World Health Organization (WHO) defining adolescence as ages 10-19, whereas other researchers argue that it is 10-24. Nevertheless, adolescence is a critical period of cognitive, physiological, emotional, and social transitions, which, as a result, increases the risk of stress and emotional distress in this age group.

Current estimates indicate that approximately 50% of all mental health disorders originate during adolescence, with their prevalence increasing to 75% by age 24. These findings have prompted scientists to highlight ages 12-24 as the key window for preventing and early intervention against depression.

Conventional clinical interventions have focused on the 'rule of rescue,' wherein an afflicted patient is prescribed a pharmacological treatment following the onset of the disease/condition. Unfortunately, this approach has low efficacy, with most patients requiring interventions not having access to it and less than half of the patients receiving antidepressants benefitting from their pharmacological interventions.

Given the alarming trend of rising mental health conditions worldwide, which has been exacerbated by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, there is a pressing need for interventions that can prevent and treat depression while being easily accessible to all.

About the study

In the present study, researchers explore NBIs as an alternative therapy that could alleviate mental health disorders through stress and mental fatigue reduction and restore emotional and cognitive functioning.

While the mechanisms of NBIs remain poorly understood, the current theoretical view is that humans depict 'biophilia,' which is the psycho-evolutionary propensity towards nature. Recent research has investigated nature connections and the rarely cited 'nature spirituality' as deterrents against depressive rumination, as these approaches can invoke a desire for meaning and purpose in life, thereby improving mental health outcomes.

NBIs cover a spectrum of nature and natural connections, including 'Shinrin Yoku,' the Japanese art of forest bathing. These interventions may also incorporate psychological approaches such as mindfulness, meditation, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

To meet the aim of ease of accessibility, the present study utilized brief six-minute videos to evaluate the impacts of nature walk exposure compared to an urban control in eliciting positive mental health outcomes.

Study participants were recruited through social media, university campus bulletins, and word of mouth. The final sample cohort comprised 75 adolescents between 18-25 years of age. After baseline screening, participants were randomly assigned in a 1:1 ratio to either the nature video or urban video cohort.

The case-cohort was exposed to an immersive visual and auditory six-minute-long woodland point-of-view (POV) video comprising blue and green spaces, sounds of water, and birdsong. The control cohort was presented with an equally long recording of a London underground train to emulate the urban setting. The control video comprised noisy urban sounds, densely packed commuters, and loud public service announcements.

Study outcomes were measured using the Short Warwickshire Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (SWEMWBS) for long-term mental well-being. The International Positive and Negative Affect Schedule Short Form (I-PANAS-SF) was used to measure present mood. The Brief State Rumination Index (BSRI) was employed to assess participant focus and involvement when asked to reflect on items 'in the moment.'

The Visual Analogue Scale (VAS) was used to evaluate participant-perceived stress levels following intervention exposure. To investigate the long-term effects of the treatments, participants were subject to the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS-4) test, which measures perceived psychological stress over the preceding month. Nature connection was measured using the Nature Connection Index (NCI), a unidimensional evaluation of nature connectedness in adults and children.

Since nature spirituality is rarely cited in scientific literature, this study used four items from the Ecospirituality Scale combined with three bespoke items using the VAS scale. Reliability analyses of all measures in this study showed good or excellent reliability at the experiment's baseline and test phases.

Study findings

Stress results in the case-cohort significantly improved compared to the control cohort compared to baseline readings. These results were long-term and improved with every follow-up session.

Relaxation levels similarly improved in cases as compared to controls immediately following video exposure. While there was no statistically significant change from baseline to control exposure, significant improvements in mood were noted in the nature exposure group immediately after the experiment.

Depression rumination evaluation was unable to identify differences in outcomes following either treatment. This may be due to the small sample size or may suggest that virtual nature exposure does not elicit as powerful a response as real-world interventions. The latter is more likely, given that previous real-world research on rumination has elucidated its positive outcome following physical nature exposure.

Attention improved in the case-cohort relative to the control group.

Nature connection analyses elucidated that NCI scores increased in the cases and decreased in the controls; however, neither of these results were significant. Self-reported nature spirituality scores significantly improved in the nature cohort but remained unchanged in the urban cohort.

The positive findings are consistent with previous research where virtual nature interventions often, but not always, show benefit".

Affect evaluations revealed no change in the natural condition compared to a drastic decrease in the urban condition. Thus, the nature video acted as a buffer against harmful effects rather than an outright improvement.

Conclusions

With depressive rumination being a key exception, six-minute-long exposure to a woodland walk POV depicted immediate improvements in attention, mood, and relaxation levels and long-term reduction in perceived stress. Nature connections and spirituality also improved in participants who were administered the nature video relative to those presented with the urban video.

Since videos can be digitally shared and screened, these types of interventions are accessible, even to bedridden patients and prison inmates who would otherwise be deprived of the natural connection.

Testing the effect of virtual nature exposure as part of a wider package of intervention, including therapy, should be prioritized in order to tackle the burden of mental health difficulties in young people through both prevention and early intervention approaches."

Journal reference:
  • Owens, M., & Bunce, H. (2023). The effect of brief exposure to virtual nature on mental wellbeing in adolescents. Scientific Reports 13(1); 1-12. doi:10.1038/s41598-023-44717-z
Hugo Francisco de Souza

Written by

Hugo Francisco de Souza

Hugo Francisco de Souza is a scientific writer based in Bangalore, Karnataka, India. His academic passions lie in biogeography, evolutionary biology, and herpetology. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. from the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, where he studies the origins, dispersal, and speciation of wetland-associated snakes. Hugo has received, amongst others, the DST-INSPIRE fellowship for his doctoral research and the Gold Medal from Pondicherry University for academic excellence during his Masters. His research has been published in high-impact peer-reviewed journals, including PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases and Systematic Biology. When not working or writing, Hugo can be found consuming copious amounts of anime and manga, composing and making music with his bass guitar, shredding trails on his MTB, playing video games (he prefers the term ‘gaming’), or tinkering with all things tech.

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