Being out in a peaceful natural landscape with a certain degree of openness appears to have a healing effect on stressed people. But it turns out that a virtual forest with birdsong and the murmur of water has the same effect, according to new research from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Alnarp.

Researcher Matilda Annerstedt used to work as a doctor and often met patients suffering from stress-related problems.

“There wasn’t much I could do for the patients and that made me feel rather restricted.” This frustration prompted Matilda to leave the world of medicine and instead start researching nature’s impact on public health.

“We saw that there was a correlation between those who spent long periods in the forest and lower stress levels. Access to tranquil natural environments also has a protective effect. People with such access run a lower risk of suffering mental ill-health,” she explains.

A more experimental study in the laboratory showed that even virtual forest environments could lower stress levels in the body. However, more than just the visuals were required. It appeared that the sound of the forest was also important if the virtual environment was to have any impact.

Previous studies on the subject suggest that broadleaf forest is better than coniferous forest for recovery, but more research is needed, according to Matilda.

“But it does seem that a tranquil natural environment is particularly important, with low noise levels and a certain degree of openness in the landscape,” she says.

What conclusions have you drawn from your results?

“The results appear to support the theory that there is a mechanism in certain natural environments that has a positive effect on health. But the subject needs more research, and I look forward to doing it. Our results aren’t conclusive enough to be used in medical treatment, but they do underscore the need for more active work on green urban planning and social assets in forestry.”


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