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Quarantine Cabin Fever? How Getting Into Nature Can Help
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Quarantine Cabin Fever? How Getting Into Nature Can Help

It’s never been more important to get out of our heads and into nature. Physical distancing and self-isolation have been recommended by public health officials in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but while your options for getting outside may not be as plentiful as usual, you shouldn’t feel restricted to your home. 

As our Executive Director, Graham, shared in his letter this week, nature can help us cope with the weeks and months ahead. His message is backed by a growing body of research that links time spent outdoors with positive mental health outcomes. These benefits are more important today than ever before. 

Nature and mental health

There’s good news for parents whose children are home across the country: kids have much to gain from exposure to greenspace. From a local park to forests to nearby nature in your backyard, getting outdoors during childhood can have long-lasting impacts on kids. One study found that adolescents who lack exposure to nearby green space were up to 55 percent more likely to develop depression and anxiety in later years.

The flipside of this are the many mental health benefits for families who do get out into nature. Ontario Parks compiled this list of all the ways in which Vitamin “Nature” boosts moods, reduces anxiety and insomnia, and can help us cope and grieve. A 90-minute walk in a natural environment can reduce repetitive thoughts around negative topics—overthinking around a global pandemic, for example. 

The art and science of forest bathing

You’re lucky if you live near a rural forested area or urban ravine. Doctors in Japan have long-prescribed a therapy called forest bathing, and the idea is gaining traction in countries like the United Kingdom and the US. Contrary to its name, forest bathing involves no water (though seriously, wash your hands!). 

Forest bathing is the act of being among nature and taking in the sights and sounds of your surroundings. Imagine: meditation, but among the trees. Close the news apps and leave your phone at home. Breathe deeply. Familiarize yourself with the new smells of spring, observe the ready-to-bud trees. 

Forest bathing isn’t strenuous, and can be enjoyed by people regardless of their age and fitness level. Research backs up the health benefits. One study found a decrease in depression, fatigue, anxiety, and confusion after participants spent 80 minutes strolling through a forest park. Other research documents that forest bathing can lead to lower pulse rates, blood pressure, and concentrations of cortisol, which is commonly regarded as our stress hormone.

Canada is the ideal spot to practice forest bathing. Our country is home to an estimated 10 hectares of forest per person (that’s about 14 soccer fields each) which is more than 17 times the world average. Here’s a helpful article to guide you through your first forest bathing experience, but remember to follow current social isolation guidelines carefully. 

Bring the benefits of nature indoors

We understand that not everyone is able or comfortable to go outdoors during this time. Fortunately, even viewing a picture of nature can be good for our mental health. A mere five minutes spent looking at greenspace can provide benefits such as improved mood and increased self-esteem. So change your phone screensaver to your favourite Canadian park and let’s get through this together! 

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Looking for more ideas of what to do as a family in the weeks ahead? Search no more—check out our 10 Ideas for Physical Distancing through Nature article!

Editor's note: This blog post was updated on Monday, March 30 to reflect the shift in language from "social distancing" to "physical distancing."


Nature Canada thanks the frontline medical workers for their efforts during this time. We follow the advice of the World Health Organization and Health Canada. Please visit these two websites for the latest information on how to protect you and your family from COVID-19.

Nature is also important to our health and well-being and we hope you’ll consider supporting our efforts to save nature. Thank you for caring!

Yours in nature, the Nature Canada team.

Reducing Anxiety Through Nature
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Reducing Anxiety Through Nature

Sherry has taken her upbringing in rural Saskatchewan, together with a career in public health, to the "natural" conclusion that time in nature is good for us, physically, emotionally and socially.

Is “fight or flight” a friend or foe?

For millennia, the biological 'fight or flight' reaction has served to protect members of the animal kingdom from harm. It kicks in when there is potential danger; for example, when a rabbit senses a fox.  There is an autonomic cascade of reactions that is activated in the amygdala in the brain.  In turn, it signals the hypothalamus which launches a series of reactions of the sympathetic nervous system.  Adrenaline floods the body causing increased heart rate and respiration.  Glucose goes to the muscles for instant energy; senses are heightened to hear, see and smell danger.  If the threat continues, additional hormones are released, including cortisol, to sustain the stress reaction for longer periods of time[i]. This physiological response enables the "fight"- the buffalo charges the wolf, the blue jay attacks the owl, the mother bear protects her cubs.  In some species it enables the 'flight'- the slap and swim of the beaver, the skittishness of songbirds, the sudden dive of a frog. Quick response to danger is vital to survival of the organism, and ultimately of the species.

The Human Experience

Humans also experience this biological phenomenon when we are stressed. Nowadays, the stress is seldom related to a predator's attack, but we do experience a stress response to difficult life events as well as day to day challenges.  We feel our heart pound, our breathing quicken, our muscles tense, our gut clench. This response helps us respond to emergencies and extract ourselves from uncomfortable situations.  Mild stress can be positive; it heightens our senses, motivates us and improves performance. But what happens when our body stays in a persistent stress response?  We become overly anxious, worried, tense, tired and even depressed.  We experience panic attacks without provocation.  Chronic stress with elevated hormones is hard on our blood vessels and cardiovascular system; it increases the appetite leading to weight gain[ii]. If it reaches a level where it interferes with daily living it can become a clinical anxiety disorder:  phobias, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety, post traumatic stress syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder[iii].  According to Statistics Canada 8.6% of Canadians have a diagnosed anxiety disorder[iv].

The Effects of Time In Nature

Time in nature can directly counteract some of the physiological and psychological effects of anxiety.  Research is showing that for healthy individuals time in greenspace contributes to mental health; for those with diagnosed mental illness, including anxiety disorders, time in nature can be an effective component of treatment[v]. Spending time in, or even passively viewing, greenspace, has beneficial psychophysiological effects[vi] by lowering blood pressure, muscle tension, and heart rate.  Cortisol is lower in people when they are in nature.  The Attention Restoration effect reduces some of the mental fatigue of being in protracted fight or flight mode.  Time in nature decreases rumination, which is the persistent recurrence of unwanted negative thoughts[vii].  The affiliated effects of time in nature, in particular increased physical activity and increased social connectedness, in and of themselves, are beneficial in reducing stress and anxiety[viii].

Getting nature in your day

With the hectic holiday period soon upon us, let all of us ensure that we build time in nature into our daily routines.  Walk through the park on the way to work, watch the birds at the feeder for a few extra minutes, get out on the snowshoes in the woods.  Use a natural scene as your computer screensaver, put up some photographs from your camping trip, get some plants or fresh cut flowers for the house, start a nature journal to record thoughts, observations, doodles and poetry. There is some irony that nature where generations of humans experienced “fight or flight” is now our respite from stress. The natural world is balm for the senses; even in the winter, the smell of balsam, the fresh cold on the face, the sound of running water, the serenity of snow covered trees can help us de-stress and calm the anxious mind. Wishing you all time in nature, and may it bring you peace and good health in 2019! Sherry, RN BSN
[i] Harvard Medical School.  Understanding the stress response.  Downloaded on November 8, 2018 from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response [ii] ibid [iii] Canadian Mental Health Association.  Anxiety Disorders.  Downloaded November 9, 2018 from https://cmha.ca/documents/anxiety-disorders [iv] Statistics Canada.  2017. Mental Health Disorders and Life Satisfaction in Canada. Downloaded on November 8, 2018 from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-627-m/11-627-m2017033-eng.htm [v] National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health. 2015. Summary:  Review of Green Space and Mental Health.  Downloaded October 2016 from http://www.ncceh.ca/sites/default/files/Summary-Greenspace_Mental_Health_Mar_2015.pdf [vi] Beyer, K. M. M., Kaltenbach, A., Szabo, A., Bogar, S., Nieto, F. J., & Malecki, K. M. (2014). Exposure to Neighborhood Green Space and Mental Health: Evidence from the Survey of the Health of Wisconsin . International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 11(3), 3453–3472  Downloaded November 8, 2018 from https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/11/3/3453/htm [vii] Bratman et al. 2015.  Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation.  Downloaded May 3, 2018 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4507237/#!po=8.62069 [viii] National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health. 2015. Summary:  Review of Green Space and Mental Health.  Downloaded October 2016 from http://www.ncceh.ca/sites/default/files/Summary-Greenspace_Mental_Health_Mar_2015.pdf
 

The Connection between Nature and Mental Health
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The Connection between Nature and Mental Health

The benefits of spending time in nature are endless. Daily contact with nature has a positive impact on our social, psychological and physical health, and is an important factor to keep us connected to our natural environment. In the last few decades humans have become more sedentary, and less inclined to spend time in nature. This is causing a disconnect with nature, and with our own well-being.


How nature affects mood

The National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health reports that there are several pathways by which time in nature improves mood- by reducing stress both physiologically and through attention restoration, by increasing physical activity and by increasing social contact with others.[i]  Additionally, scientists have demonstrated changes in brain activity and reduced rumination following a walk in nature.  Rumination is a preoccupation with negative thoughts and is associated with depression.[ii] Participants of the David Suzuki 30x30 challenge (30 minutes daily for 30 days) reported better moods, more energy and vitality as well as increased fascination ( which is researcher speak for a sense of awe and affinity with the natural world).[iii]

Take that black dog for a walk in the woods

Winston Churchill suffered from periods of depression or melancholy throughout his life; he referred to this as the "black dog".  Statistically, he was in good company as depression is a common disorder and is considered the leading cause of disability globally.[iv]  In Canada over ten percent of youth have had a depressive episode and eight percent of adults will experience depression in their lifetime.[v]  But the simple act of spending even short amounts of time in nature can improve moods, even in people who have been diagnosed with a mood disorder.[vi] [vii]

Complementary therapy

This is not to say that nature can replace the traditional pharmacology and psychotherapy treatments for depression.  However, it does suggest that everyone, including those who suffer from depression would benefit from access to green spaces.  This includes living in proximity to nature; a study in the U.K. of disadvantaged pregnant women found that higher residential greenness was associated with reduced depressive symptoms.[viii]

Quality matters

The benefits of time in nature are proportionate with the quality of the green space, the amount of time spent there and the level of immersion (active, such as green exercise is more effective than passive, say, looking out a window).  Therefore, it behooves us to champion the creation and protection of accessible, biodiverse natural areas where we live, work and play.

So whether you have a "black dog" in your life or just had a bad day, think about going outside for a healthy dose of nature!


For more information on Mental Health Week in Canada, please consult the Canadian Mental Health Association Centre website.Sources [i] National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health.  2015.  Green space and Mental Health: Pathways, impacts and gaps.  Downloaded on April 16, 2018 from http://www.ncceh.ca/sites/default/files/Full_Review-Greenspace_Mental_Health_Mar_2015.pdf [ii] Bratman et al. 2015.  Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation.  Downloaded May 3, 2018 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4507237/#!po=8.62069 [iii] Nisbet, Elizabeth K.  2015. Answering Nature's Call- Results of the 2015 David Suzuki Foundation's 30x30 Nature Challenge.  Downloaded Sept. 23, 2017 from https://davidsuzuki.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/results-2015-david-suzuki-foundation-30x30-nature-challenge.pdf [iv] World Health Organization. 2018. Depression.  Downloaded May 3, 2018 from http://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression [v] Canadian Mental Health Association. 2013.  Fast facts about Mental Illness.  Downloaded May 3, 2018 from https://cmha.ca/about-cmha/fast-facts-about-mental-illness [vi] Capaldi, CA, Passmore, H., Nisbet, EK, Zelenski, J., Dopko, R.  2015.  Fourishing in Nature:  A Review of the Benefits of Connecting with Nature and Its Application as a Wellbeing Intervention.  International Journal of Wellbeing, Vol 5, No. 4.  Downloaded Oct. 3, 2017 from https://internationaljournalofwellbeing.org/index.php/ijow/article/view/449 [vii] National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health.  2015.  Green space and Mental Health: Pathways, impacts and gaps.  Downloaded on April 16, 2018 from http://www.ncceh.ca/sites/default/files/Full_Review-Greenspace_Mental_Health_Mar_2015.pdf [viii] McEachern, RRC, Prady, SL, Smith, G. Et al.  2015.  The association between green space and depressive symptoms in pregnant women: moderating roles of socioeconomic status and physical activity. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Volume 70, Issue 3.  Downloaded on April 20, 2018 from http://jech.bmj.com/content/70/3/253.long

I Belong Here – How Nature Supports a Sense of Belonging and Wellbeing
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I Belong Here – How Nature Supports a Sense of Belonging and Wellbeing

[caption id="attachment_34602" align="alignleft" width="150"]Image of Sherry Nigro, Guest Blogger Sherry Nigro, Guest Blogger[/caption] This blog is written by guest blogger Sherry Nigro. Chances are, when you think about your "happy" place, it is somewhere in a natural setting. Why is that? Research shows that exposure to nature is correlated with improved wellbeing and a stronger sense of belonging. Both of these factors contribute not only to our quality of life, but also to our morbidity and even mortality! [caption id="attachment_34889" align="alignright" width="340"]Image of flowers Photo by Sherry Nigro[/caption] Time in nature has quantifiable physiological effects, including changes to brain activity, reduced stress hormones, improved immune function and less muscle tension. More difficult to measure are the intangible effects, such as personal perceptions and feelings. However, with sample sizes of thousands of people, scientists have been able to validate the link between nature and feeling a sense of connection. Amazingly, this happens whether one is in the no-cell-service wilderness or looking at a tree out of a window. While the response is proportionate to the quality of the green space and the level of immersion, it is still remarkable that one just needs to see nature to have an effect. That said, there are still questions about how the pathways of response function and whether there is a chicken-or-an-egg causality. There is a need for continued research to better understand the relationships with obvious implications for health care, education, land use planning and public policy. Connectedness is fundamental to the human condition. When someone is exposed to nature, there is a sense of connection to nature, of belonging that scientists have named "nature-relatedness". Tools to measure the depth of an individual's "soft fascination" with and interest in nature have been able to demonstrate links with pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours as well as higher levels of wellbeing. [caption id="attachment_34890" align="alignleft" width="357"]Image of a lake Photo by Sherry Nigro[/caption]

We not only feel more connected to the natural world, we also feel more kinship with our human community. Exposure to nature increases social cohesion which consists of shared norms, positive relationships with others and feelings of belonging. Studies on populations, such as public housing residents, show that those who have access to green space and green views have more social ties with their neighbours and a stronger sense of community. We know that attachment to a place or a group is highly protective for positive mental health, especially for youth and older adults.

Reports by respected organizations including the World Health Organization, the American Public Health Association, Canadian Parks Council, and Toronto Public Health, have all documented the positive impact nature has on our personal sense of belonging and wellbeing. But I think perhaps Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) said it best: "I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees."
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Spending Time In Nature Is Good For Your Health
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Spending Time In Nature Is Good For Your Health

[caption id="attachment_30818" align="alignleft" width="150"]Jill Sturdy Jill Sturdy, NatureHood Program Manager[/caption] Today is World Health Day! How will you be celebrating it? We suggest getting outside and enjoying the nature near you! A study was published providing guidelines for kids’ physical activity in a 24 hour period, and reinforced the importance of outdoor play for kids’ overall health and wellbeing. We all know the importance of moving our body every day, and the risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle (sitting is the new smoking, right?). Yet, Canadians are spending more time indoors (and sitting), which is having a huge impact on our mental and physical health, particularly with children. We are also becoming less connected to nature. [caption id="attachment_35384" align="alignright" width="289"]Image of Jill's son and dog in snow Jill's son and dog playing in the snow.[/caption] Providing opportunities for kids to spend more time playing outdoors in nature will help promote a healthy lifestyle, and foster an appreciation for nature. If you are looking for ways to get your child to move more, send them outdoors! Kids will naturally move more when they’re outdoors. Kids know play! And the best way to get your kids out into nature is to go with them! Why not take the opportunity to spend some quality family time together in nature?! It can be hard to get motivated to get outside this time of year when it’s dark and the weather is colder, but there are lots of ways to enjoy winter.  The most important thing is to make sure you’re dressed for the weather. Get everyone geared up with toques and mittens, snowpants and boots, and go out and discover nature in your neighbourhood. You don’t need to go far to explore nature. Last night, my son, dog and I decided to walk down and get the mail, and it turned into an adventure. It was dark but the moon was out and with just a skiff of snow, created a bit of natural light. We explored the fresh footprints in the snow and wondered if we’d hear an owl in the forest. It was a short, 20 minute walk after dinner that gave us a chance to connect after a full day at work and school. We held hands as we walked and laughed, and were amazed at how bright the waxing moon shone. We had a blast, and the fresh air helped all of us settle down for the night! Why not incorporate a neighbourhood nature walk this weekend, and discover nearby nature right where you live – in your NatureHood! To read more, check out an article on family nature walks here and recent guidelines on children and outdoor play here.

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