1. What is anxiety?
  2. Are there any proven ways to overcome anxiety?
  3. Okay, walking is good. Is there anything else? And how long do I need to do it?
  4. How does science explain these mechanisms?
  5. I’ve heard that spending time outdoors helps with anxiety. Is this also scientifically proven?
  6. And what about using new technologies, like VR?
  7. Does ITMO conduct research in this field?
  8. What will the project focus on?

What is anxiety?

According to Charles Spielberger, anxiety can be described as feelings of worry, nervousness, and apprehension in various daily scenarios. These feelings can be caused by different situations, such as a math test, using a map to navigate a new place, and even performing daily routines. Scientists have been studying the mechanisms behind anxiety for over 50 years. In that time, they have identified a negative correlation between the level of anxiety and academic performance (the higher one’s anxiety, the lower their academic performance and vice versa). Apart from that, researchers demonstrate that anxiety has a negative effect on one’s self-image and general well-being.

Are there any proven ways to overcome anxiety?

If we look at current research, we will see that one of the most widely discussed ways to cope with anxiety is physical activity. There are a number of studies demonstrating that regular physical activity has a positive effect on people’s self-esteem and well-being (see here, and here). It turns out that even taking regular walks can help overcome anxiety: American researchers have discovered that people who walk their dogs feel happier and experience less stress. Another team of scientists demonstrated that physical activity can improve our performance at work. To prove that, researchers installed treadmills at a finance company's offices. As a result, they saw that those employees who used treadmills while working improved both their well-being and work performance.

Okay, walking is good. Is there anything else? And how long do I need to do it?

Walking is not all you can do. Researchers have shown that regular aerobic exercise (10 repetitions of 7-9 exercises), working out three times a week, or doing yoga can also help cope with anxiety. For example, one study demonstrated that ten weekly one-hour sessions of yoga can reduce stress and anxiety, while another study showed that even two hours of yoga can lower one’s anxiety.

How does science explain these mechanisms?

Anxiety symptoms are associated with a dysregulation in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. It’s the main neuroendocrine system responsible for the body’s homeostasis, adaptation to its surroundings, and survival under stress. Research done on the topic demonstrates that regular aerobic exercise is associated with decreased HPA dysregulation and, consequently, reduced anxiety. Moreover, anxiety is connected to a decrease in serotonin synthesis in the brain’s frontal lobes. However, scientists have shown that serotonin levels increase after physical activity, which makes us happier.

I’ve heard that being in nature also helps cope with anxiety. Is this also scientifically proven?

The latest studies show that contact with natural environments can decrease negative emotions, improve self-esteem and psychological well-being, and improve various cognitive functions, such as attention, and is associated with a high level of physical and mental health. Researchers recommend spending at least 120 minutes outdoors every week to garner the associated positive effects and the best results have been found at 200-300 minutes. However, even a 15-minute walk in nature can boost your spirits. Moreover, in a study conducted during the pandemic Israeli researchers demonstrated that even looking at nature through a window was associated with lowered stress levels and an increase in positive emotions among people stuck at home during lockdown. In another study, it was shown that even listening to nature sounds (such as birds chirping) can increase the performance in various cognitive tasks.

And what about using new technologies, for instance, VR?

There are studies on different alternative ways of interacting with nature, which are relevant for those cases when people don’t have the opportunity to visit a park or a riverbank. Such alternative ways include looking at photos, watching videos, and exploring VR environments. The majority of these can have a positive effect on our well-being, albeit not to the same extent as actually being in nature. Here, research demonstrates that the best results can be acquired with immersive virtual reality, when people can actually interact with a computer generated environment. In general, though, VR can be used in a wide range of scenarios. For instance, a recent study has shown that virtual nature helped reduce stress in frontline healthcare workers during the pandemic.

Does ITMO conduct research in this field?

International studies on mental health of Master’s and PhD students have found that 67% of participating students demonstrate low levels of well-being, 33% have moderate to high anxiety, and over half of respondents in one study were experiencing burnout. In order to develop and implement efficient methods that will improve the mental well-being of ITMO students, the university has launched a new project within the new Development Strategy.

What will the project focus on?

Over the span of two years, the project’s team will run a series of experiments with VR headsets. In the first year, they will evaluate the effects of doing sports (and rowing in particular) in VR on students’ anxiety, psychological well-being, and burnout. As a result, the researchers will develop technologies to improve well-being and lower anxiety levels, as well as come up with concrete methods of introducing these technologies at ITMO and its partner organizations.

If you want to participate in the project, send an email to its coordinator Ksenia Bartseva ( or any employee of the Center for Neuroscience in Education.