By Rob Lewis
This blog post was written by our very own Rob Lewis and delves into the psychophysiological reasons why it can be very good for us to brave the cold in Autumn and Winter and get outdoors. Rob is the EEAI Interim Committee Chairperson
One of the most common phrases I hear from people who have moved to Ireland from warm countries is that, in Winter, it is too cold to do anything – and it often is! With shorter and colder days, many of us leave for work when it is dark, wrapped up, figuring some way to avoid the cold, and end up getting home when it is dark again — never getting to engage with nature.
We have moved from the long warm days of Summer, the colourful, crisp Autumn. It can be hard not to build up a negative association with Irish weather, or even the outdoors. Our brains have a negative bias and an amygdala that is continuously scanning our environment looking for threat and danger that need to be avoided, and Winter can offer a vast amount of stimuli that can present as danger: The cold! The barren trees, darkness and rain… lot’s of rain. When the amygdala senses a threat, it activates our sympathetic nervous system – our fight or flight response. Our brain takes over our thinking and begins to create feelings and emotions that help us avoid the harmful or threatening stimuli. When that is nature – we avoid the outdoors and, thus, we avoid connecting with something that often energises us, reduces stress and makes us feel better.
There are many theories as to why nature makes us feel good; it can give us perspective as we see the vastness of our world; endorphins are released (more than exercising indoors) as we hike or exercise in nature. The biophilia hypothesis says that since we lived in nature for millennia, when we reengage with it, it is like coming home for our mind and body.
What research is showing us though is that this is true. MIND in (2007) carried out a study of 108 nature psychotherapy participants. They found that 71% reported a decrease in depressive symptoms after spending time walking. 53% experienced a reduction in sadness and anger from time spent outdoors versus 33% from time spent indoors. 71% experienced a decrease in stress from a green walk. Overall, 81% experienced an improvement in mood from the green walk, while 43% experienced a reduction in mood from walking in a shopping centre.
As mentioned earlier, when our brains experience a threat, it goes into a fight or flight mode – instantly. This happens in a part of the brain where we are not often engaging in conscious thought. Instead, we get feelings and automatic thoughts. This is the activation of our sympathetic nervous system. During Winter – these can be manifested in decisions not to go outdoors and to choose to stay by the fire or watch Netflix, etc.
Part of why we get a good feeling from engaging with nature is due to its activation of our parasympathetic nervous system; this is the part of our nervous system that releases calming chemicals and hormones. When we are relaxed and de-stressing, it is the parasympathetic that is being activated.
We can measure some of this in the body through the presence of cortisol in saliva. When we are stressed, the body produces cortisol. Research from Hartig, Evan, Jamner, Davis and Garling (2003) demonstrated that when participants went for a walk in a rural environment (parks or nature reserves), they recorded lower levels of cortisol in their saliva – in essence, they reduced their stress levels.
So as Winter deepens, and you feel the desire for comfort, warmth and to be dry, take a risk, get your wet gear and thermals and get outdoors. Find a way to be one with nature; not just went it is warm, but also when it is cold and wet. You will still get all the benefits, but also you will be getting that chance to reconnect with something that is part of you. Enjoy the beauty of Winter.