As World Environment Day approaches, UNEP reminds us that “The foods we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink and the climate that makes our planet habitable all come from nature.” But what about our mental wellbeing?
We have learned a lot during lockdown; one of the most striking aspects has been the way that we humans have turned to the natural environment to help us cope with the mental anguish that COVID-19 has brought to our lives. The link between time spent in green space and mental health and wellbeing is well established. In taking time for nature we are also taking time for ourselves.
At UCC School of Applied Psychology’s ACME (Ageing, Cognition, Multisensory perception, and Environment) laboratory, Dr. Annalisa Setti researches these links. The blog post below is from Alison O’Meara, a final year student who worked with Dr Setti over the last few months to look at how exposure to nature might affect exam anxiety among students. The results were very interesting….
My name is Alison O’ Meara, I am a final year undergraduate student in Applied Psychology at University College Cork. For my final year thesis, I investigated the relationship between virtual reality exposure, exam anxiety and performance under the supervision of Dr. Annalisa Setti and with the support of the Disability Support Services and the Skills Centre in UCC.
Why is nature good for us?
Some of the most well-known and widely researched benefits that can be obtained from spending time in nature are enhanced levels of happiness and vitality, reductions in psychological stress and the restoration of mental fatigue (1, 2, 3).
Viewing nature for as little as 5 minutes is beneficial
We don’t need to be constantly exposed or exposed to nature for a long time to reap these benefits, as spending as little as 5 minutes in nature has been shown to cause a significant reduction in individuals’ stress levels (4)
Don’t have access to nature? Virtual Reality can solve that!
While the benefits of nature exposure are clear, it is also clear that nature is not always available to individuals as nowadays, more and more people live in urban areas (5).
However, even people do have access to nature, availing of it may not be possible under certain circumstances (e.g. while at work or when sitting an exam).
Fortunately, contemporary developments in immersive virtual reality (IVR), have facilitated the creation and customisation of virtual green environments (i.e. parks and forests, 6).
Test Anxiety: a pervasive problem
Test anxiety can be described as the dread, fear and worry of failure that occurs during or before testing scenarios (7)
It’s no wonder that the number of students suffering from test anxiety continues to rise, as the results from exams often act as gateways into further education or potential job prospects, which can put a lot of pressure of having to perform well (8)
Therefore, I believe that it is becoming progressively relevant to explore alternative methods that will serve to mitigate the debilitating effects of exam anxiety.
To my knowledge, no study has looked at the effects green environment exposure may have on students’ levels of test anxiety right before an exam.
Several studies have looked at the impact exposure to green environments via IVR has on individual’s mood and have deemed this technology as an effective therapeutic aid for managing stress and promoting relaxation (9).
Therefore, I wanted to conduct research that would seek to answer the question: whether or not green environment exposure, as opposed to exposure to an urban environment, simulated by virtual reality technology, will serve as an effective intervention to reduce participants’ test anxiety and therefore increase test scores.
We recruited 40 participants were recruited, twenty who met the inclusion criteria for the high exam anxiety and 20 who met the inclusion criteria for the low exam anxiety. Within both groups, each participant was randomly assigned to either an urban or nature virtual reality (VR) intervention condition.
Virtual Reality Footage
The nature condition comprised of a 360-degree experience of being immersed in a lush forest whereas the urban condition comprised of a 360-degree experience of being immersed in an alleyway located in an urban town.The footage for both of these scenes was recorded on a GoPro Fusion 360-degree camera.
We gathered measure of Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS), which functioned in assessing participants’ momentary feelings towards (i.e. anxiety) having to complete an exam and participants completed a non-verbal reasoning test, which functioned in mimicking a real-life testing scenario.
Next, participants underwent the VR intervention. Depending on which condition they had been assigned to, participants had four minutes to observe and ‘explore’ either an urban or nature environment. Participants were also asked to wear headphones so that they could listen to the accompanying noise of environment, then they completed the PANAS again and took another test.
What was found?
Students with high exam anxiety showed reduced anxiety following the nature VR intervention
High Anxiety Participants exposed to the nature VR intervention were the only group of participants to have a significant decrease in negative affect scores after the intervention. This group also showed the biggest mean decline in negative affect scores (see figure 1. ‘HA NAT’).
This study revealed a promising link between exposure to green environments via virtual reality and the subsequent reduction in feelings of negative affect for students with high exam anxiety prior to a testing situation.
I believe that there is a lot more scope for further research into this topic. This study is another example of why green environments should be viewed as a fundamental psychological health resource.
Facing an exam can be a very overwhelming and uncertain experience for people who suffer with exam anxiety. At present, we may find ourselves feeling a similar way given the current global circumstance. If you are, pop in your headphones and try spending a few minutes exploring the ‘virtual forest’ that is linked below.
If you have any questions you’d like to ask regarding this research, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
(1) Capaldi, C. A., Dopko, R. L., & Zelenski, J. M. (2014). The relationship between nature connectedness and happiness: a meta-analysis. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 976.
(2) Ryan, R., Weinstein, N., Bernstein, J., Brown, K., Mistretta, L., and Gagne, M. (2010). Vitalizing effects of being outdoors and in nature. J. Environ. Psychol. 30, 159–168. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2009.10.009
(3) Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. CUP Archive
(4) Gladwell, V. F., Brown, D. K., Barton, J. L., Tarvainen, M. P., Kuoppa, P., Pretty, J., … & Sandercock, G. R. H. (2012). The effects of views of nature on autonomic control. European journal of applied physiology, 112(9), 3379-3386.
(5) Heilig, G. K. (2012). World urbanization prospects: the 2011 revision. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), Population Division, Population Estimates and Projections Section, New York, 14.
(6) Calogiuri, G., Litleskare, S., Fagerheim, K. A., Rydgren, T. L., Brambilla, E., & Thurston, M. (2018). Experiencing nature through immersive virtual environments: environmental perceptions, physical engagement, and affective responses during a simulated nature walk. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 2321.
(7) Trifoni, A., & Shahini, M. (2011). How does exam anxiety affect the performance of university students. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 2(2), 93-100.
(8) Duraku, Z. H. (2017). Factors influencing test anxiety among university students. The European Journal of Social & Behavioural Sciences, 18(1), 2325.
(9) Villani, D., Riva, F., & Riva, G. (2007). New technologies for relaxation: The role of presence. Interrnational Journal of Stress Management, 14(3), 260.