Hosted by SISP student committee, McGill University
& Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology
With the constant change in public health recommendations leading to periods of isolation, social distancing, and general malaise, it is unsurprising that resilience has become such a trending topic. Students, parents, and mental health professionals alike are on a desperate search for strategies to counteract the creeping feelings of burnout and “languishing” brought upon by the second year and fifth wave of a seemingly endless COVID-19 pandemic (1).
Research shows our risk of developing mental health disorders is exacerbated when we feel isolated, lonely, and as though we lack agency in our lives (2). While there is no one solution to help counteract these feelings, evidence points to the utility of creating a sense of connection not only with those around us, but with our natural surroundings (3).
Reconnecting with nature is neither a new nor ground-breaking suggestion, but it is one that bears repeating. We are inextricably linked to our natural environment, even when we are restricted to the confines of our homes. Westernized scientific research and indigenous wisdom alike point to the overwhelming psychological and physical health benefits of both the exposure to natural environments and feelings of connectedness with nature. Connection with nature can help us improve our mood and well-being, our attentional capacity, and develop a sense of place, purpose and connection in a world that often feels chaotic. It can also help us to cultivate positive feelings, such as love and compassion, towards nature and its inhabitants (3, 4, 5).
Nature is theorized to improve well-being through ‘soft fascination’; that is, a type of attention directed towards interesting stimuli that requires minimal cognitive effort and helps restore our capacity to pay attention (6). The good news is that it is very easy to access the benefits of nature! To experience its benefits, we don’t have to go to completely wild, hard-to-access areas. So much as looking out a window with a view of a tree, or even a photo of a beautiful nature scene can have substantial positive impacts on our well-being, with research showing that these effects are comparable to going into an actual natural space (7).
The McGill Mindfulness Research Lab (MMRL) is building on this area of research by working in collaboration with Super Sublime (a Montreal-based not-for-profit company) to develop and test a virtual reality (VR) application that combines high definition, 360-degree videos of Canadian wilderness with mindfulness activities. Through this research, we hope to provide an effective, nature-based mindfulness experience for individuals who might have limited access to the outdoors. Mindfulness, frequently described as nonjudgmental awareness towards the present moment, has been linked to various positive mental and physical health outcomes. The origins of mindfulness are derived from Buddhist and other contemplative traditions, where it is viewed as a deeper sense of purpose and awareness that enables enhanced comprehension of the present moment. At MMRL, we have developed a conceptualization of mindfulness that builds on ancient Buddhist philosophy, as well as modern neurobiological and psychological science, and views mindfulness as the interaction of consciousness between the mind, body, and the outside world, also known as “embodied mindfulness”. Embodied mindfulness is a developable skill that includes elements of attention, awareness, and acceptance of the mind, body, and mind-body-environment connections (8). This conceptualization is particularly helpful to use as a framework when thinking of the links between mindfulness, nature, and their positive impacts for our health.
Mindfulness is also quite naturally (pardon the pun) associated with a deeper appreciation and connection with nature, with the contrary also appearing to be true. Many people struggle to maintain alertness when beginning mindfulness training, which can often lead to feelings of discouragement and a lack of willingness to continue building their practice. Nature appears to be key in helping boost engagement with mindfulness techniques, as novice meditators may be more able to access feelings of soft fascination in natural environments, due to their restorative effects (9). Additionally, VR might be a particularly effective way to combine nature with mindfulness training as it appears to enhance user engagement, alertness, and presence (10).
Today, finding ways to mindfully connect with our natural environment seems to be more important than ever. This holds true regardless of one’s age or occupation but is particularly important for those working in positions with a high risk of burnout, such as mental health professionals. At MMRL, we are eager to build a scientific and practical understanding of the impacts of non-conventional access to mindfulness and nature, through examining technologies such as VR. Perhaps VR might be one entryway to building meaningful habits that promote connection to our natural world and enhance our ability to stay present and purposeful, despite life’s various challenges.
Isabel Sadowski (left) is a doctoral candidate in Counselling Psychology at McGill University, supervised by Dr. Bassam Khoury (right), William Dawson Scholar and Assistant Professor in Counselling Psychology at McGill University. Isabel is a member of the McGill Mindfulness Research Lab, led by Dr. Khoury. Her research investigates the effectiveness of nature-based mindfulness interventions, delivered via virtual reality, to support older adults’ well-being and mental health. She is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and Mitacs Accelerate.
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1. Grant, A. (2021, April 19). There’s a name for the blah you’re feeling: It’s called languishing. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/well/mind/covid-mental-health-languishing.html
2. Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. PLoS medicine, 7(7), e1000316. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316
3. 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. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00976
4. Hartig, T., Mitchell, R., De Vries, S., & Frumkin, H. (2014). Nature and health. Annual review of public health, 35, 207-228. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-032013-182443
5. Schmitt, J.F. (2018) Natural Inclusionality, Indigenous Wisdom, and the Reality of Nature. Human Arenas, 1(1), 37–55. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42087-018-0008-8
6. Kaplan, S. (2001). Meditation, restoration, and the management of mental fatigue. Environment and Behavior, 33(4), 480-506. https://doi.org/10.1177/00139160121973106
7. Browning, M. H., Mimnaugh, K. J., van Riper, C. J., Laurent, H. K., & LaValle, S. M. (2020). Can simulated nature support mental health? Comparing short, single-doses of 360-degree nature videos in virtual reality with the outdoors. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 2667. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02667
8. Khoury, B. (2018). Mindfulness: embodied and embedded. Mindfulness, 9(4), 1037-1042. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-017-0858-z
9. Schutte, N. S., & Malouff, J. M. (2018). Mindfulness and connectedness to nature: A meta-analytic investigation. Personality and Individual Differences, 127, 10-14. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2018.01.034
10. Navarro-Haro, M. V., López-del-Hoyo, Y., Campos, D., Linehan, M. M., Hoffman, H. G., García-Palacios, A., ... & García-Campayo, J. (2017). Meditation experts try Virtual Reality Mindfulness: A pilot study evaluation of the feasibility and acceptability of Virtual Reality to facilitate mindfulness practice in people attending a Mindfulness conference. PloS One, 12(11), e0187777. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0187777
Why Nature, Mindfulness and Virtual Reality Might be The Ideal Salve for Challenging Times
By Isabel Sadowski, PhD Candidate and Bassam Khoury, PhD