Do you enjoy going outside but find it increasingly difficult owing to issues of age or mobility? Do you have health-related issues that tend to keep you indoors more than you would like? Does the thought of a walk in the woods sound enticing although you worry that heat and humidity (or in the proper season cold and ice) might make this walk less pleasant than it otherwise would be?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” you might be an excellent candidate for a study being undertaken by three graduate students in Occupational Therapy at JMU. Bekah Vanzo, Brandon Mantell, and Mikayla Moore are studying how the uses of Virtual Reality technology might ease your anxieties and provide some of the therapeutic benefits of being in an outdoor environment.

Everyone from the Romantic poets to modern psychologists has recognized the restorative power of nature. In “Tintern Abbey” William Wordsworth expresses how memories of pastoral scenes have sustained him in times of stress: “I have owed to them/In hours of weariness, sensations sweet/Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart.” And in an online article entitled “The Healing Powers of Nature” writer Stephen Nett asserts: “Multiple studies have shown that adults who exercised in nature had lower levels of tension, confusion, anger, and depression than when they exercised indoors.”

As we age, however, we become existentially aware that being in nature, as much as we might love the experience, can be fraught with difficulty. We might not be able to drive ourselves to our favorite outdoor haunts; trails that we love to hike seem rockier and our balance less steady, resulting in greater anxiety about falling; we don’t tolerate heat and cold as well as we used to, so we tend to stay indoors more. There are countless reasons why our experience of nature changes as we grow older. The Occupational Therapy team from JMU is setting themselves the task of studying how Virtual Reality technology might be able to help us achieve some of the peace and tranquility we used to find in our outdoor excursions, all in the comfort of our own home.

Bekah explains: “This research project aims to see if we can bring the outside inside in a restorative way using Virtual Reality, a computer technology using sound and sight—and scents of essential oils.” Those who choose to participate will take part in five sessions ranging from 20 to 40 minutes each. The first session involves an interview about the past and current life experiences of participants and is followed by a short survey about the perception of stress in their lives. In the following four sessions participants will view a five-minute video of a “natural” environment (using a Virtual Reality headset) accompanied with some scents of essential oils to match the images on the video. Researchers will take a blood pressure reading before and after participants have viewed each video. The final session will end with the participants filling out a survey and a short exit interview about the experience, and will conclude with recommendations for the future.

Although participation in the study involves no monetary compensation, the hope is that exposure to these natural images and scents will have stress-relieving effects. And stress relief, if it occurs, would certainly be a welcome and desirable outcome! As Bekah explains: “Evidence suggests that reduction in stress can help persons recover from illness and injury faster and increase their quality of life. Ultimately, we would like to see if Virtual Reality has a place in working towards these goals for older individuals.”

The researchers are currently recruiting subjects and gathering data. Recruitment will go up to November 1st, and they hope to finish data collection by November 15th. They aim to finish analyzing their data by April 2020, and the hope is that this study will eventually lead to publication and dissemination of the results.

The research team is now actively seeking Sunnyside residents to participate in this study. Their “ideal” participant is a resident who, according to Bekah, “is not able to experience the outdoors as much as they used to or to the extent that they would like. This may be due to physical mobility challenges, general apprehension, hesitation about leaving their residence, or other obstacles that prevent them from spending time outside either at the Sunnyside campus or beyond.”

If you are interested in participating, you will be happy to learn that sessions will be conducted in a quiet space on Sunnyside’s campus or in the privacy of your own living space — whichever is more comfortable and convenient for you.

If you would like to learn more or are interested in participating, please contact the researchers at

--John Noffsinger