While winter is a season of snow and bracing temperatures, getting outside may be just what you need to help fight the winter blues.
Nature absolutely enhances well-being, as it gives us the example of fluidity and giving, says Maria Schmid, a registered psychologist in Calgary.
“A tree must be stable yet adaptable to bend and not break. It offers us a guide to weathering change and doing so gracefully and gradually,” she says. “Be it indoors or outdoors, plants . . . offer us the ability to recognize we all need nurturing and care.”
A growing body of evidence supports Schmid’s therapeutic approach.
Elizabeth Lines, a Canadian health promotion consultant, has a particular interest in the health of people in later life. In her Mood Walks website, she notes the growing evidence that exposure to natural settings has direct effects on reducing stress and enhancing mental wellbeing.
“Research findings suggest that natural settings such as parks, wilderness areas, urban green spaces and gardens may be just what the doctor ordered to improve both physical and mental health,” she reports.
She references the groundbreaking 1989 book, The experience of nature: A psychological perspective, in which Rachel and Stephen Kaplan propose Attention Restoration Theory as an important approach to human wellbeing.
Their theory, bolstered by studies across the globe, is based on earlier research showing that we focus attention in two ways. One is involuntary attention, when we’re captured by intriguing phenomena such as a passing cloud or snow falling through trees. Voluntary attention, when we need to consciously concentrate on something, takes more effort and if prolonged, can lead to fatigue and stress.
Natural environments provide the involuntary “soft fascinations” that allows restoration from attention fatigue, says Lines.
In a research brief by Kathleen Wolf and Elizabeth Housley, published by Nature Sacred in August 2016, the authors report that for older adults, studies reveal physical activity in nature can be linked to better moods, decreased chance of depression, reduced stress levels and improved cognitive function.
It speaks to the notes on Schmid’s website, that transition or change poses challenges, especially as we age into new situations. But they can be the ground on which people find purpose, connection and meaning.
So while winter is especially difficult for the elderly, keeping them confined and aware of the aspects of life that feel dreary and disorganized, it also offers benefits.
“Winter offers a period of darkness and quiet unlike other times of year,” says Schmid, noting the season invites minds and bodies to find calm, stillness and peace.
“It is our human version of hibernation, that serves as an important state for reflection, restoration and renewal.”
There’s also growing evidence that exposure to a natural environment while exercising leads to better mental health than activity done elsewhere.
Cory Donald, a registered psychologist and founder of Forward Psychology in Edmonton, uses the city’s river valley, ravines and trails to encourage clients to open up. Even a walk with a client around the block improves the flow of communication.
The physical act of moving forward and walking shoulder to shoulder makes it easier to talk, he explains.
“(We) combine the mental aspect with the physical aspect of movement. It takes away the intensity of an eye-to-eye interview style in an interior environment,” he says.
The forward momentum also frees clients’ minds for more creative expression, Donald says, noting a working principle is the change of context.
“My clients say it opens them up to different ways of thinking,” he says. “Physically active talk therapy grounds us in the moment, to the here and now, and to have a conversation about what we need to work on.”
Even so, winter can be disheartening or pose real risks for the elderly. But nature doesn’t have to stop at the threshold, and studies show that indoor plants provide benefits beyond aesthetics and clean air.
According to Healthline newsletter, October 2016, indoor plants boost mood, enhance concentration and improve recovery times. Flowers have been shown to have an immediate positive impact on happiness and memory. Even looking out a window into a forest or seeing nature in a picture frame can contribute to stress reduction and improved cognitive health for older individuals. For more information, visit the HealthLine website is at www.healthline.com/health/importance-plants-home
However it’s encountered, nature offers opportunity for social connections and sharing common experience.
There’s a positive benefit from moving forward while walking with someone, says Donald.
“Calling a friend to come with you, even once around the block, you have that experience of the sun on your face, the crunch of snow, that endless blue Alberta sky.”