Getting a massage or doing breathing exercises are tried-and-true methods for alleviating stress.¹ Yet if you're strapped for time or neither is working for you, there's a faster way to relax. Simply looking at calming pictures can melt away your worries and make you feel good.
In fact, looking at calming pictures is a form of mindfulness meditation, or training your attention to achieve a mental state of calm concentration and positive emotions.² If you've ever heard the phrases "zone out" or "take a mental vacation," that's exactly what calming pictures have the power to do for your mind and, therefore, your overall wellness.
Here's what research tells us about why certain images and colors are so soothing.
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There's a reason why nature has a calming effect. Researchers have found that looking at calming pictures of nature improves mood by reducing activity in the brain's orbitofrontal cortex, which is involved in regulating emotion. While experiencing anxiety or depression, this area of the brain becomes hyperactive, which is why you may feel things like stress or worry.³
A second study compared looking at calming pictures of forests versus calming pictures of cities. Results showed that visual stimulation with forest imagery similarly reduced activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, increasing perceptions of comfort and relaxation.⁴
The connection between green spaces and feeling good is no secret. In fact, simply living near green space is associated with improved mental health and wellbeing.⁵
Many white noise machines include a "whoosh" of crashing waves, but even looking at calming pictures of the ocean might have a similar relaxing effect. Research shows a promising link between ocean views and better mental health, with increased views of blue space (like seascapes) associated with lower levels of psychological distress.⁶
Natural fractals are repeating patterns that recur on finer and finer scales. They can be found almost everywhere in nature, including in shells, flowers, leaves, snowflakes, and river deltas. There are also man-made fractals, which are artificially-made designs found in architecture.
Aside from being aesthetically pleasing, fractals can melt away stress. Research shows that fractal patterns are associated with positive psychological experiences, particularly relaxation.⁷ So if you've found yourself transfixed and unable to look away from a spiral, that's why.
In addition to calming pictures, colors can have a major impact on stress levels. One color in particular can do wonders for your mood.
The color blue has long been associated with relaxation. Found in both the sky and sea, blue is a color connected to nature that can stimulate clear thought, calm the mind, and help with concentration.⁸
Plus, being exposed to the color blue, particularly blue light, can actually lower your blood pressure. A 2020 study found that blue light exposure significantly decreased systolic blood pressure, which can temporarily rise or spike as a result of stress.⁹
How often you use calming pictures and colors is up to you. Whether you choose to look at calming pictures and colors every day, or once a week, try to be consistent either way.
First, find somewhere quiet and comfortable free from interruption. Your relaxation space should also have a comfortable temperature that isn't too hot or cold, which can make it hard to relax. Lastly, relax your body and muscles, particularly any tense areas.¹
Once you're ready, spend a few minutes looking at calming pictures or colors. Try to focus on the image in front of you and how it makes you feel. Deep breathing is also helpful, since deep breathing is a powerful tool in reducing stress.¹⁰
You don't have to plan a hike in the woods or a beach getaway every time you need to destress. Instead, take a mental vacation. Certain images, shapes, and colors can have a calming effect on the mind, which can improve your mood and help you relax. Whether you're new to using calming pictures and colors or a seasoned pro, consider keeping these sorts of images handy for times of stress.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Relaxation Techniques: What You Need to Know.
- American Psychological Association. Mindfulness meditation.
- Yamashita R, Chen C, Matsubara T, et al. The Mood-Improving Effect of Viewing Images of Nature and Its Neural Substrate. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2021;18(10):5500. doi:10.3390/ijerph18105500
- Song C, Ikei H, Miyazaki Y. Physiological Effects of Visual Stimulation with Forest Imagery. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2018;15(2):213. doi:10.3390/ijerph15020213
- Barton J, Rogerson M. The importance of greenspace for mental health. BJPsych international. 2017;14(4):79-81.
- White MP, Elliott LR, Grellier J, et al. Associations between green/blue spaces and mental health across 18 countries. Scientific Reports. 2021;11(1):8903. doi:10.1038/s41598-021-87675-0
- Robles KE, Roberts M, Viengkham C, et al. Aesthetics and Psychological Effects of Fractal Based Design. Frontiers in Psychology. 2021;12. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.699962
- Kurt S, Osueke KK. The Effects of Color on the Moods of College Students. SAGE Open. 2014;4(1):215824401452542. doi:10.1177/2158244014525423
- Stern M, Broja M, Sansone R, et al. Blue light exposure decreases systolic blood pressure, arterial stiffness, and improves endothelial function in humans. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. 2018;25(17):1875-1883. doi:10.1177/2047487318800072
- Perciavalle V, Blandini M, Fecarotta P, et al. The role of deep breathing on stress. Neurological sciences : official journal of the Italian Neurological Society and of the Italian Society of Clinical Neurophysiology. 2017;38(3):451-458. doi:10.1007/s10072-016-2790-8