Winter Is When We Need Nature Most

Bundle up and go outside.

Posted Jan 29, 2021

It is cold in the northeast today, with wind chills in the negative numbers. This morning, I bundled myself up and sat in my backyard, just for a moment, to ground myself for the day. I was blessed with a setting full moon which I watched dip below the horizon.

The changing of the season, shorter days, and colder temperatures make us more likely to retreat indoors. Less sunlight can bring seasonal affective disorder (SAD). According to American Family Physician (2000), SAD affects about 4 to 6 percent of the population, and 10 to 20 percent of all people will have some mild winter depression. Yet, hibernating can be good for us.Winter is a time to rest, restore, and recharge.

However, our busy minds and our demanding society does not often let us rest. As we sit, most of us are plagued with to-do lists in our brains: emails unanswered, tasks to be done and phone calls to be made. If we do not practice ways to quiet our minds, sitting still can be counterproductive. We can feel guilt rather than rest. We may beat ourselves up for our procrastination rather than reward ourselves with much-needed rest. We might feel lazy rather than restored.

Image by Megan Delaney
Moon walk
Source: Image by Megan Delaney

Self-deprecation is hardly productive. How can we break these patterns in our brains? Mindfulness practices and self-kindness are effective in helping the mind develop neuropathways for reducing stress and being more present (Shapiro, 2020). There is a multitude of ways to practice mindfulness, finding the right one can be a fulfilling, personal journey.

As an ecotherapist and an educator, I help clients and students understand the innate connection we, as beings on this planet, to our planet (Delaney, 2020). We explore the evolution of this disconnect, the colonization of the natural world, especially here in the United States, and find ways to rekindle that lost bond in mutually beneficial ways.

One way to reconnect to nature is right in your backyard. Psychologist Craig Chalquist (2007) writes how a connection to the earth can come through deep dwelling and conscious location. In essence, he asks, “how well do you know your surroundings?” Do you feel connected to your place in space? Are you familiar with native species of plants, animals, or birds?

Recently, I listened to Dr. Chalquist discuss how he spent a full year getting to know the nature that surrounds him. He did so by sitting in the same spot at the same time each day and observing; letting the earth get into his psyche. I am inspired and trying this on my own (follow my progress on TikTok at @drmeg_ecotherapist). If anything, I am starting my day with a healthy dose of nature. Research shows that, in as little as five minutes, nature improves our mood and decreases stress (Bratman, Hamilton, Hahn, Daily, & Gross, 2015). 

I leave you with two simple thoughts:

  1. Rest this winter, without guilt.
  2. Treat yourself to a dose of nature.

Happy wintering.

P.S. Not all people have safe, healthy access to nature. People of color, marginalized populations, and low-income communities are far less likely to benefit from nature. To read more and get involved locally, check out the report The Nature Gap from the Center for American Progress. The statistics are staggering.

References

Bratman, G. N., Hamilton, J. P., Hahn, K. S., Daily, G. C., & Gross, J. J. (2015). Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112, 8567–8572. doi:10.1073/pnas.1510459112

Chalquist, C. (2007). Terrapsychology: Reengaging the soul of place. Spring journal Inc.

Delaney, M.E. (2020). Nature is nurture: Counseling and the natural world.  Oxford University Press.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (2000 Mar 1); Am Fam Physician, 61(5):1531-1532.

Shapiro, S. L. (2020). The Science of Mindfulness: How to Rewire Your Brain for More Calm, Clarity and Happiness. Octopus Publishing Group.