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“Awe Experiences” Reduce Anxiety And Depression

Jim Folk author
Written by: Jim Folk.
Medically reviewed by: Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated: September 26, 2020


awe experiences reduce anxiety

Image Credit: Envato Elements

Research has shown that spending as little as 20 to 30 minutes in nature can reduce stress and anxiety – the more inspiring the environment, the better the effect.

Recent research has also found that having daily “awe experiences” can not only increase prosocial positive emotions but can also reduce daily distressing emotions, such as anxiety and depression.[1]

University of California San Francisco researchers found that a regular dose of awe is a natural and simple way to boost positive emotions, such as compassion and gratitude, and reduce distressing emotions.

The researchers defined an “awe experience” as: a positive emotion elicited when in the presence of vast things not immediately understood—reduces self-focus, promotes social connection, and fosters prosocial actions by encouraging a “small self.”

“Awe is a positive emotion triggered by awareness of something vastly larger than the self and not immediately understandable — such as nature, art, music, or being caught up in a collective act such as a ceremony, concert or political march,” Keltner said. “Experiencing awe can contribute to a host of benefits including an expanded sense of time and enhanced feelings of generosity, well-being and humility.”[2]

The study’s abstract reported:

We investigated the emotional benefits of a novel “awe walk” intervention in healthy older adults.

Sixty participants took weekly 15-min outdoor walks for 8 weeks; participants were randomly assigned to an awe walk group, which oriented them to experience awe during their walks, or to a control walk group.

Participants took photographs of themselves during each walk and rated their emotional experience. Each day, they reported on their daily emotional experience outside of the walk context.

Participants also completed pre- and postintervention measures of anxiety, depression, and life satisfaction.

Compared with participants who took control walks, those who took awe walks experienced greater awe during their walks and exhibited an increasingly “small self” in their photographs over time. 

They reported greater joy and prosocial positive emotions during their walks and displayed increasing smile intensity over the study.

The researchers concluded:

These results suggest cultivating awe enhances positive emotions that foster social connection and diminishes negative emotions that hasten decline.

“I find it remarkable that the simplest intervention in the world – just a three-minute conversation at the beginning of the study suggesting that participants practice feeling awe on their weekly walks – was able to drive significant shifts in their daily emotional experience,” Sturm said. “This suggests promoting the experience of awe could be an extremely low-cost tool for improving the emotional health of older adults through a simple shift in mindset.”[2]

“Experiencing awe is such a simple practice – just taking a moment to look out the window or pausing to consider the technological marvels that surround us – and we now show it can have measurable effects on our emotional well-being,” Sturm added. “A little more joy and a little more connectedness with the world around us is something all of us could use these days.”[2]

If you are looking for natural ways to reduce stress and anxiety, spend time in nature, and especially where you can have an "awe experience," such as a breath-taking vista, beautiful sunrise or sunset, a stunning view of the mountains, or the serenity of a calm lake.


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The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior - a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety's underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.


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REFERENCES:

1. Sturm, Virginia, et al. "Big smile, small self: Awe walks promote prosocial positive emotions in older adults." Emotion, 21 Sept 2020, https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Femo0000876

2. Weiler, Nicholas. "‘Awe Walks’ Boost Emotional Well-Being." University of California San Francisco, 21 Sept 2020, https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2020/09/418551/awe-walks-boost-emotional-well-being