Being in nature has a huge impact on our well-being. In Japan they regularly practice forest bathing – taking a slow walk through nature and immersing your senses fully. In North America some doctors are now giving prescriptions to get out in nature, and as we all sheltered in place, the longing to get outside and discover nature was top of mind. Below we explore the mental health benefits of nature and how to find ways to get more of it in your daily life.
When we take a closer look at well-being, we’ll find that it’s deeply rooted in nature. From the changing seasons to the powers of superfoods to the lunar cycle—nature paves our path toward a more wholesome lifestyle.
Stepping outside expands our worldview in more ways than one. Research continues to find that nature experiences can sharpen cognitive functioning, bring on positive emotions, and reset tired brains. Compared to walking through built environments, strolling through natural ones can also reduce our tendency to ruminate on nagging problems.
Nature contact—of any—kind reminds us of all that lies beyond our own heads. And you don’t need to wait until the next time you jet out to a pristine beach or secluded mountaintop to reap these mental health benefits. You can find them on your daily walks through your neighborhood or nearby park. Yes, even the frigid ones! These six ideas will make this winter’s nature outings more pleasant, meaningful, and oh-so-worth layering up for:
1. Engage your senses.
On your next winter walk, see if you can engage your senses. Remove your headphones and try to tune into sounds that are far in the distance (are those chatty birds?). While walking barefoot on the earth may be out of the picture, see what other features you can safely touch, like an evergreen leaf or the bark of a tree. Open up wide to taste the fresh breeze, and home in on the smell of the crisp day on your inhales.
Tuning into the 5-senses allows us to practice mindfulness by moving out of our heads and into our bodies. This practice can be very helpful in relieving anxiety. Try it yourself: while walking name one thing each that you can see, taste, hear, touch and smell.
In nature, there’s so much more than meets the eye, and these non-visual cues can make our outdoor experiences all the more mindful and meaningful.
2. Explore a new route.
You may already have a go-to route for your midday walk, but why not break tradition? Finding a new green space to explore can open you up to awe—a transformational emotion that has a special way of making us feel less time-strapped, more creative, and more willing to act in ways that benefit others.
Awe is what we feel when we’re faced with something beyond our comprehension, and it’s usually followed by goose bumps and a slack jaw. It’s common on impressive terrains like national parks, but you can also get it in more everyday encounters. The key is to open yourself up to new experiences that expand your understanding of the world. That new-to-you area of your neighborhood never looked so appealing.
3. Tack your nature time onto something else.
An easy way to get in your nature contact on days when you’re strapped for time is to tack it on to another activity. Perhaps you vow to take a recurring weekly call while out on a walk or listen to your favorite podcast drop in a local park. This may be a less mindful way to engage with the nature around you, but it’ll still give you a quick fix of invigorating fresh air and vitamin D.
4. Dress for success.
You know the old saying: There’s no bad weather, only bad clothes. Nothing can make or break a winter outing like the wrong outfit. If you, too, live in a chilly clime, remember to always pack an extra layer or two—just in case—and throw some hand warmers in your pocket for good measure before you get out there. For those of us in Vancouver, it’s a good idea to pack an umbrella too.
There’s no reason to believe that nature’s power gets muted when covered in snow or ice. In fact, one study out of the University of Michigan found that people enjoyed the same improvements in memory and attention when they walked outside during a dreary 25-degree day in January than they did during a sunny 80-degree one in summer. So, once you’re layered up, trust that your mind is still being rejuvenated—even if you can’t feel the rest of your face.
5. Bring nature in.
Of course, there will probably be days this season when getting outside really isn’t in the cards. Luckily, research tells us that even looking at photos and reminders of nature can be enough to calm us down and improve our mood. Introduce more houseplants, nature photography, natural materials, and colors that remind you of a favorite landscape in your home this winter to bring some of the mental magic of the outside in.
6. Do a Walking Meditation
1. As you walk or jog, feel your feet as they connect with the earth.
2. Visualize light-energy entering from the top of your head and running down the length of your body into your feet, grounding you to the earth.
3. As you move, watch your thoughts; paying attention to any ruminating, judging, imaginary conversations, rehearsing, and blaming thoughts. When you find your mind here become aware and then pull out of the pattern.
4. Shift your focus to the beauty of nature around you and breathe into your heart centre.
5. Pay attention to your breath; you can do a full body breath into the belly, ribs and chest expanding slightly to reset your nervous system.
6. If thoughts resurface, notice them and direct your focus again to your feet on the ground, your breath pulling in fresh air, and the sights and sounds of nature.
7. You can continue this for the duration of your walk, or choose to have a set time for your mediation.
While practicing your walking meditation remember to keep your chin level, ruminating slips in easily when the chin is dropped, try it yourself and see what happens.
The bottom line.
Nature is a gift, and it’s one that we should never take for granted—even in winter. Support your mind and mood this season by continuing to brush up against the natural world whenever you can using these little tips and techniques.
Please note that the advice in this article doesn’t replace personalized medical advice from a professional.