In partnership with the University of Leeds
© The Basin, Rottnest Island
Mental health – a growing issue:
In the last five years there has been a marked increase in stress related illnesses and a decline in positive mental health across a range of populations and cultures.
The results of the NatWest Student Living Index 2019, based on a survey of 3,604 students at UK universities, found that almost half (45 %) feel stressed by their course. During examination periods stress levels are extremely high amongst students sitting examinations, especially medical and dental students (Heinen, 2017) and the number of students dropping out of university due to mental health problems is increasing.
While many of us use methods such as yoga, mindfulness and exercise to control stress, research has found mixed benefits of these approaches, given the tendency to avoid such activities during times of acute stress.
Previous research has hinted at the power of animals and pets to improve mental focus. Tourism Western Australia and The University of Leeds partnered up to explore the physiological and psychological impact of ‘cute’ animals, including the world’s happiest animal – Western Australia’s very own quokka – on students and staff at the University of Leeds.
Quokkas are members of the same family as wallabies and kangaroos and have been named the world’s happiest animals for their delightful toothy grins. Found only in Western Australia, these mini marsupials are best seen on Rottnest Island, a car-free paradise just a short ferry ride from Perth’s city centre.
19 participants were asked to watch a 30-minute slide show that included images and short video clips of a range of cute animals, including videos and photos of the quokka.
15 of the 19 participants were due to take an examination 90 minutes after watching the slide show. The remaining four participants were academic support staff who had declared they were feeling stressed at work.
For the physiological aspect of the study, a selection of participants (N=12) wore heart rate monitors for the duration of the session with heart rate sampled at one-minute intervals. Pre and post the study, the following physiological readings were taken across all participants:
Heart rate (taken by OMRON MX3 Plus)
Blood pressure (taken by OMRON MX3 Plus).
For the psychological aspect of the study, participants were asked to complete the State Trait Anxiety Inventory pre and post session and two focus groups were conducted with one group of students (N=4) and one group of academic support staff (N=4).
Before the session commenced, the average heart rate across all participants was 72 bpm, with the highest resting heart rate being 90 bpm.
The mean average blood pressure across all participants sat at 136/88 (pre-high blood pressure), with the highest participant blood pressure reading being 148/90 (high blood pressure).
Post-session, the results were significant. The average heart rate of all participants fell from 72.2 bpm to 67.4 bpm: A reduction in heart rate of 6.65% in just 30 minutes.
Heart rates for every single participant dropped after viewing images and videos of cute animals for just 30 minutes.
Analysis of blood pressure told a similar story. The average blood pressure across all participants dropped from 136/88 to 115/71. In percentage terms, this represents a 14.9% drop in systolic blood pressure and a 18.28% drop in diastolic blood pressure.
Such a reduction moved the group average BP from the state of pre-high to within the ideal blood pressure range (90/60 – 120/80).
The highest reading of blood pressure fell from 148/90 (high BP state) to within the ideal blood pressure range (specifically, 120/69). In percentage terms, this represents an 18.9% drop in systolic blood pressure and a 23.3% drop in diastolic blood pressure. Impressive results, given the session only lasted 30 minutes.
Commenting on the physiological results, Dr. Andrea Utley said:
“It was clear that students were anxious ahead of their exams, with heart rates and blood pressure for most participants mildly elevated before our session took place. Indeed, in some individuals heart rate and blood pressure was even higher indicating a higher level of stress for those participants.
“Throughout the course of the session, heart rates and blood pressure fell across all individuals to a level that would be considered healthy and indicative of limited stress or anxiety.”
The State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) is a psychological inventory based on a 4-point Likert scale and consists of 40 questions on a self-report basis. The STAI measures two types of anxiety – state anxiety (such as anxiety about an event – like an exam) and trait anxiety (the anxiety level one endures as a personal characteristic).
As we were looking at how cute animals could de-stress students ahead of an exam, we only used the State aspect of the inventory, so participants had to answer 20 questions.
The STAI gives an indication of anxiety at a particular point in time. The higher the score, the higher the level of anxiety.
As can be seen from table above, there was a significant dip in anxiety post viewing images and videos of cute animals. Participants dropped 16 points on average – a decrease in anxiety of 35.10%.
In individual cases, anxiety levels dropped by almost 50%, proving that viewing consumption of cute animals, such as Western Australia’s quokka, can be a powerful stress reliever and a mood enhancer.
Focus groups revealed three core themes as a result of the study
Feeling Relaxed – Participants found the session relaxing and enjoyable. They commented that both the environment and the slide show made them relaxed. Watching the slide show distracted them from the examination and it enabled them to focus on images that made them feel happy, entertained and relaxed.
“I felt happy and calm” (Participant 1)
“I totally focused on the slide show- it made me smile” (Participant 3)
“At one point I thought I was going to fall asleep” (Participant 8)
“I wanted to be on that beach with those little kangaroo things (quokkas)” (Participant 8)
Animal Preferences – Participants commented on the content of the slide show. They preferred the video clips to the still images, and they liked the clips of animals interacting with humans. They commented on the clip with the dogs wanting to be stroked and the clip of the quokka eating grass and following the man.
“I like the quokka eating the grass and then the one that was smiling – it made me smile” (Participant 5)
Feeling valued and supported – Participants commented that they felt supported by the faculty putting on the stress reducing session. Sessions are held by the student union and staff centre but they felt impersonal and took place in buildings that were not familiar.
The in-house session made students and staff feel valued-they felt that the department cared about them.
“Made me feel that my lecturer valued me and cared about how I performed” (Participant 1)
“I feel valued and pleased that I can be involved” (Participant 5)
Commenting on the psychological findings, Dr. Andrea Utley said:
“The findings from our stress questionnaire were significant, with state anxiety scores from the STAI anxiety inventory reducing from 46 to 30. This indicates that participants emotional state at the start of the session was far more apprehensive, nervous and stressed than it was by the end of the session.”
Summary of findings
Across all measures there was a drop in anxiety and stress as a result of watching the slide show which featured images and videos of cute animals, including Western Australia’s quokka.
All participants demonstrated a reduction in stress on at least three measures, with quokka content proving highly effective in reducing stress
Video clips of animals were more popular that still images.
Human interaction with animals was the most stress reducing aspect of the slide show.
Students performed better in this module than previous cohorts.
Dr. Andrea Utley commented, “As with other research, it would appear that animals are able to reduce stress and anxiety in humans. It would appear that images appeal but video clips are more meaningful, and I would therefore expect that physical closeness would be even better.
“With the results as solid as they are, we’ll be rolling this relaxation method out across other departments so more students can destress ahead of their exams.”
If you’d like to watch a sample of the video the participants saw, please visit quokka tv