Fight Those Late Winter Blues
Has winter weather got you down? Do you find yourself daydreaming about warm spring days? North Country folks may be known to embrace winter, but even the hardiest among us aren’t immune to the late winter doldrums. Fortunately for us, a growing body of evidence suggests that the cure for cabin fever may be just outside our (frosted) windows, in the snowy fields and forests across the North Country.
The idea nature can help restore our minds and bodies is not particularly groundbreaking. We know intuitively that we feel better when we’ve taken a walk in the fresh air. Yet researchers have only recently begun to study how and why exposure to nature, or lack thereof, affects our mood and mental acuity. In Japan, shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing”, in which participants simply sit and walk in the woods, is now prescribed by doctors as standard preventative medicine. In a 2010 Japanese study, subjects had lower heart rates, blood pressure, and cortisol (a stress hormone) after time spent forest bathing than they did after the equivalent amount of time spent in urban environments.
The benefits go beyond physical health. In a recent UK study, more than 20,000 people downloaded a smartphone app called “Mappiness” that messaged users at random times throughout the day, asking them to assess their happiness at that moment. After six months and more than a million responses, researchers analyzed the survey data in combination with the GPS location of each user response. They found that participants were substantially happier in parks and natural spaces than they were in urban or indoor settings. The effect was strongest for individuals in coastal environments, but still pronounced for those who responded from forests, grasslands and farms.
Winter may seem like the ideal time to nest indoors, but we still need regular doses of nature to maintain cognition and mental clarity. Time spent in nature may actually restore our ability to focus. Daily activities such as emailing and texting, driving in traffic, following a recipe, and watching TV all demand our directed attention. The ability to channel our attention to specific tasks is important, but eventually our brains become fatigued. In contrast, natural environments tend to offer gentle stimuli, such as birdsong, subtle changes in lighting, and running water. Walking in a natural setting, and allowing yourself to become immersed in your surroundings enables your brain to rest and replenish its higher level functions, like problem-solving and creativity. A recent study found that adults scored up to 50% higher on creativity tests after three days of wilderness hiking and camping.
It is good news that time in nature can reduce stress, improve mood and focus, and make us more creative. When we’re feeling foggy, restless and irritable, a walk in the woods is cheaper than caffeine, pharmaceuticals, or an expanded cable package. So what’s stopping us from getting outside? I’ll start with the obvious: North Country winters can be harsh. The weather this week will range from sub-zero degree lows to 40 degrees with heavy rain and wind. The sidewalks and trails have turned to a dangerous mix of slush and ice. Nonetheless, it still may be best for us to suck it up and go outside. Participants in the Mappiness study and those in Marc Berman’s studies on cognition in nature were less happy in adverse conditions than they were on sunny days, but still enjoyed cognitive and mood improvements from time spent outdoors. Here are a few suggestions for how to maximize the restorative effects of nature this winter:
- Keep it leisurely. Rigorous exercise has its benefits, but to give your brain a break, it is better to move slowly and fully immerse yourself in your surroundings.
- Head for the woods. The noise and air pollution from traffic may contribute to stress.
- Engage your senses. Smelling, touching, and listening to your surroundings will stimulate new experiences.
- Don’t let technology become a distraction. Taking a few pictures may be okay, but listening to music or talking on the phone may not allow your mind to wander.
- Bundle up. Cold, fresh air may clear your head, but it can also be dangerous. Minimize exposed skin and be careful to keep your extremities warm. It is unlikely that frostbite will make you any happier.
- If you don’t have time to get outside, research suggests that simply looking at nature photos may improve attention. Change your screensaver or desktop background to natural scenes.
If you’re feeling stuck in a rut at this time of year, spending some time outside each day might help you push through these last few weeks of winter. It may not be comfortable, but your brain will thank you.