Regular exposure to nature is an integral component of good mental health. The sun, the greenery, the wind, are all elements that contribute to a good psychological balance and a better quality of life. However, certain unforeseen events in life sometimes prevent us from taking full advantage of these benefits. Here we highlight an alternative solution to enable as many people as possible to enjoy nature: virtual nature.

1. What is virtual nature?

Virtual nature is the use of digital environments that mimic nature with visuals and sounds to immerse a person in a near-reality experience. This virtual nature can be very realistic, with the use of 360° photos or videos, or more fanciful, with the use of computer-generated images and 3D models, which allow greater creative freedom as well as offering experiences that would otherwise be impossible.
From forests in autumn, to scuba diving, to space travel, virtual reality offers a wide range of cognitively and emotionally enriching experiences. Environments can be fixed or moving in the environment, to adapt to the needs and limitations of each patient.

2. How does virtual reality relaxation work?

When exposed to virtual reality environments, the limbic system, which is responsible for the emotional interpretation of the environment, is activated more quickly than the evolutionarily more recent parts. This allows for an emotional impact that is close to or even equal to reality.
Thanks to this phenomenon, it is possible to use this tool to provide experiences that can be valuable in regulating an individual’s emotional state.
Thus, thanks to this functioning, virtual nature has the same positive effects as real nature. It can bring about a state of relaxation, reduce symptoms of anxiety, better manage stress, reduce agitation and increase the perception of well-being.

3. Who can enjoy virtual nature?

Virtual nature can benefit everyone, but it may be particularly recommended for certain audiences:

People in urban areas, who often have fast-paced, stressful lifestyles and limited access to nature, despite the increasing greening of these areas. Virtual nature allows people to quickly enjoy the benefits of nature on a regular basis to relieve the stress of everyday life.

Immobilised people who cannot access real nature. Virtual reality can provide the benefits of nature, but also work on exploration and pleasure, to combat the depressive symptoms that can accompany prolonged immobilisation.

People suffering from neurodegenerative diseases, especially when they have behavioural problems, agitation or wandering. These symptoms are alleviated by exposure to nature and travel, and virtual nature offers an easy-to-access and easy-to-use solution, both at home and in specialised institutions.

People suffering from chronic anxiety and depression, conditions for which exposure to nature has been shown to be extremely beneficial. However, these disorders have a significant impact on psychomotor functioning, which makes it difficult to access treatment and supportive elements. Virtual reality provides an initial access to nature, which helps to reduce symptoms of anxiety, anhedonia and may contribute to a behavioural reactivation, necessary for treatment.

– Virtual nature is also an asset in palliative care. It helps to alleviate anxiety and the pain of illness, as well as providing experiences of exploration and wonder in a difficult context.

– As part of a quality of work life approach, virtual nature can help reduce stress in a professional context by offering moments of pause and relaxation. In addition to promoting good mental health for employees, this practice increases productivity and well-being at work.

And many other situations. Virtual nature and virtual reality relaxation are versatile solutions that can be easily applied to many situations, with great acceptability and very few contraindications.


4. What about true nature?

It is clear that regular access to real natural environments is the ideal solution and should be part of everyone’s lifestyle. However, as we have seen, this access is not always easy or possible. This tool is not intended to replace nature with screens, a rather scary dystopian scenario. The aim is really to facilitate access to a valuable mental health resource for people who live with many barriers to enjoy it fully.

The COVID crisis of recent years has highlighted the potential difficulties associated with confinement and lack of contact with nature. Virtual nature opens up a range of possibilities in accompanying and supporting wellbeing and mental health in a wider range of challenging conditions.