How to improve your mental health and embrace nature in winter

woman in yellow jacket looking at hills

Being out in nature is considered an antidote to stress (Picture: Getty/Metro)

This week I have been looking back at pictures from last September, when the final days of summer were dwindling and my friends and I took a trip to Wales for the weekend.

While I will admit that some of the natural landscapes were challenging (Snowdonia was not for me), being immersed in nature for a whole weekend was dreamy.

I came home feeling like a new person: reset, refreshed and ready to take on the colder months.

There’s nothing like escaping to the countryside; getting away from the constant barrage of traffic, buildings, billboards and concrete you find in cities.

I always find myself much more at peace when I return, which makes sense as nature is known to have profound effects on our mental health and sense of wellbeing.

What are the mental health benefits of nature?

As clinical psychologist Dr Gemma Harris explains: ‘According to a large UK study those who spent at least two hours a week in natural outdoor spaces were more likely to report better physical and psychological health,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.

‘Being out in nature is considered an antidote to stress – having the power to reduce our nervous system arousal. Although we think of our parasympathetic nervous system as our body’s “rest and digest” mode, it can actually be triggered when we are active in nature.

‘We think that this might be because being in natural environments helps create a kind of mindfulness experience; we are being present in nature, taking in the sensory stimuli, and reducing the number of things we are focusing on cognitively, but in quite a natural and soft focus way.’

Gemma adds that nature is often used as part of therapy: ‘As psychologists we often use grounding techniques to connect to the present, which are used to manage stress, anxiety and trauma,’ she says.

‘Being in nature, particularly barefoot, can be seen as a way of grounding to the present, the earth and your current surroundings.’

Ruth Micallef, an MBACP registered councilor, echoes this: ‘Green and blue space therapies (or ‘nature therapy’) have such an incredible range of benefits,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.

According to Micallef, blue space therapy can improve our self-esteem, social confidence, and resilience, to name just a few, and research shows us green space therapy can help us find meaning in life, increase overall contentment, and promote social connectivity.

She continues: ‘From simple activities like gardening and a walk in the park, all the way to wild swimming and forest bathing, there are so many ways we can get involved.’

That is, unless it’s -1 degrees outside, the heating isn’t doing the trick and the rain is quite literally bouncing off the pavements.

That’s one of the worst things about winter. Not only is there barely any daylight hours, but there’s also no easy way to go out and embrace nature, not unless you’re willing to get chilled to the bone walking in the rain.

But it doesn’t have to be impossible, and if you know that nature will boost your mood, there are ways to beat the winter weather blues and simply go for it.

Take it from Lucy Shepherd, a professional explorer who often finds herself in the high mountains and freezing arctic.

These are her top tips for embracing the outdoors in the winter:

How to embrace nature during the cold winter months

Don’t procrastinate

‘When you wake up, don’t spend time looking out the window contemplating if you’re going to go for a walk or run,’ says Lucy.

‘In fact, you should already plan it the night before.

‘Have your clothes all ready so you get up and out immediately – it’s rarely as bad as it looks.’

There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes

‘Clothing is everything, although I like to try and wear shorts on my walks and runs all year round,’ Lucy explains.

‘By wearing shorts, you walk and run faster, and if you keep your top half and hands warm, your core will stay cosy.’

She continues: ‘Waterproof trainers or boots are a must.

They’ll keep your feet dry, warm and mud-free.

‘Wellies are great but not super comfy to walk in and pretty cold!’

Embrace the scenery

‘Even in the winter, the scenery can be beautiful,’ says Lucy.

‘Listen to the birds and look up close at the trees.

‘It’s glorious to see them change every day from autumn to winter and winter to spring.

‘Don’t forget to embrace those winter sunrises, either – they are stunning!’

don’t stop moving

‘To keep yourself warm, don’t stop moving, even when you’re resting,’ says Lucy.

‘When you walk, swing your arms to keep the blood moving, if you do need to stop, for a picnic or something, take an extra layer and a hot drink.’

Think of the end goal

‘Finally,’ says Lucy, ‘think of the achievement you will feel when you get back to your warm home.

‘You’ll feel awake and refreshed for the rest of the day!’

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Get in touch by emailing MetroLifestyleTeam@Metro.co.uk.

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