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Anxiety

Nature Imagery May Alleviate Anxiety

Being in nature can reduce anxiety; guided imagery can bring nature to you.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issue in the United States, and they're a

Source: Joshua Earle/Unsplash
Matterhorn, Zermatt, Switzerland
Source: Joshua Earle/Unsplash

significant problem worldwide. A growing body of evidence has found that spending time in nature, whether while exercising or in general, has numerous mental health benefits, including reducing anxiety and tension. Spending time in nature has also been shown to increase happiness and feelings of vitality.

Not everyone has equal access to nature, however, whether due to physical or geographical limitations. At this writing, a large and growing number of people have been quarantined due to the coronavirus. By some reports, anxiety related to the coronavirus has increased at a time when people are being directed to limit in-person social interactions, air travel, and other types of activity. The good news is that even if you cannot get to a natural setting to experience its benefits, a novel study has found that using guided imagery of being in nature can significantly reduce feelings of anxiety.

Guided Imagery

Guided imagery is a mind-body tool that directs the imagination to create a desired experience. Specifically, multisensory imagery can be used to transport the listener to a vivid inner world, whether in nature or elsewhere, that is designed to facilitate achieving a specific goal, such as feeling reduced anxiety and increased calm.

Theoretically, in the mind, all things are possible; as such, much as with hypnosis, immersive guided imagery enables the listener to create a vivid and personalized experience that can be both timeless and unconstrained by the limits of everyday reality. Images and sensations created by the mind can feel almost as real as the "real" thing.

One thing to keep in mind is that aversive imagery has been shown to increase, rather than decrease, anxiety. So the type of imagery one uses is an important factor in whether it will be helpful.

The Study

In their research, Jessica Nguyen and Eric Brymer sought to determine whether engaging in guided imagery of a natural setting versus that of an urban setting reduced anxiety as measured by mean scores on the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory. The researchers also assessed participants’ abilities to experience vivid visual imagery and their feelings of emotional and cognitive connectedness to nature.

Each of the 48 participants was randomly assigned first to one of the two imagery conditions (nature or urban setting) and then to the other. Participants were directed to mentally engage their senses with either the natural or urban setting of their choosing for 10 minutes. There was a one-week period between participants engaging in each of the two imagery audio recordings.

The Results

What the researchers found was that the reduction in anxiety was significantly greater after engaging in the nature imagery as compared to the urban imagery. Interestingly, engaging in the urban environment guided imagery also led to a significant reduction in anxiety—just not to the same extent as the nature imagery did. These results were independent of participants’ abilities to visualize vividly or how connected they felt to nature.

One reason why both the nature- and the urban-themed guided imagery exercises decreased anxiety could be that the imagery was self-directed—participants were told to immerse themselves in the sensory experiences of each setting and were allowed to choose the specific settings as long as they were consistent with the study condition (nature versus urban). It is likely that participants would naturally seek to create an inner experience that is desirable, i.e., pleasant, comforting, safe, or relaxing. The researchers did not ask participants about the specific content they created beyond confirming that the environment was consistent with the study condition. Therefore, it’s not possible to examine in greater detail what the specific “active ingredients” may have been with regard to anxiety reduction beyond engaging in imagery itself.

The Takeaways

The important takeaways from this study are that 1) natural environments, whether real or created in the mind, have the potential to decrease anxiety, 2) even those who cannot access actual nature can experience some of the benefits via guided imagery, and 3) self-directed, immersive imagery in general can be a useful tool for decreasing anxiety.

How can you capitalize on the benefits of imagery?

  1. Decide on what you want to see change, and create a relevant goal. Often if your goal is to decrease something, it will probably also mean focusing on what you want to increase. So, if your goal is to reduce anxiety, you may want to envision the anxiety as a substance, such as smoke or debris, that can dissipate (think of a cloud breaking up). And make sure to include imagery that is in itself relaxing and calming, whether that means you find yourself on a sunny beach, hiking your favorite mountain trail, or simply sitting on your couch with tea and a good book.
  2. Be aware of the imagery you tend to generate when you’re stressed and practice consciously interrupting that pattern.
  3. Feeling-state imagery can be very powerful. So whether or not you are imagining a peaceful natural setting, remember to recall a time when you actually felt safe, calm, and relaxed. Try to imagine stepping into those feelings in mind and body.
  4. In a previous post, I listed more specific steps for creating your own imagery, which you can record on your phone and listen to daily. As with any mind-body or other tool, practice makes perfect—you'll get the best results with regular listening.
  5. For those who prefer pre-recorded imagery, there are a number of good resources for free imagery, such as the Insight Timer app, as well as other professionally-produced imagery.
  6. If you are working with a mental health professional, your therapist may be able to create personalized imagery for you that you can use both in session and at home.
  7. If imagery alone is not sufficient to manage your anxiety, make sure to reach out to a licensed mental health professional.

References

Anxiety and Depression Association of America (March 10, 2020). Coronavirus anxiety - helpful tips and expert resources. https://adaa.org/finding-help/coronavirus-anxiety-helpful-resources

Miller, A. M. (March 5, 2020). Online therapy is in high demand as coronavirus anxiety drives people to get help without leaving their home. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-anxiety-leading-people-to-o…

Naparstek, B. (1994). Staying well with guided imagery. New York: Warner Books.

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): Mental Health by the Numbers. https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers

Nguyen, J., & Brymer, E. (2018). Nature-based guided imagery as an intervention for state anxiety. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 1858.

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