The brain benefits of nature

Conceptual Image Of Green Tree Shaped Like Brain

Nature refreshes us, inspires and even heals us.  We know that for a long time humans have benefited from being around nature, enjoying the fresh air, and majestic scenery of lush forests and bountiful rivers. 

Over the last decade many of us have followed the global trend towards urban living and this means working from home and less time outdoors. However, spending time outdoors has a variety of benefits for our brain including improved attention, lower stress, better mood, reduced risk of mental illness and even a rise in empathy and cooperation. 

Our connection with nature – how much we notice, think about, and appreciate our natural surroundings – is critical in supporting good mental health and preventing distress. Being close to nature, whether you’re hiking through a local park or simply admiring fresh-cut flowers on your kitchen table, can boost your mood and leave you feeling more alert and less anxious.

In the summer months it’s easy to be outside and spend the day at the beach or hiking your favourite trail.  However, in the cold winter months, many of us would prefer to be curled up on our coach with a hot cup of chai watching our favourite movie. To help you get connected with nature in the winter, here are Shimi and Jas’ favourite tips to get the mental health benefits without freezing your toes off:

  1. Schedule short walks when the temperature is the highest.  If you are an early riser you will love starting your day off with a brisk walk in the morning. Dr. Kang points out “a walk outside improves one’s mood just like light-box therapy is known to help people with mood disorders”. It’s very effective to be outside because our brains release powerful neuro-chemicals similar to those you may be trying to promote with medications. 
  2. Stay hydrated with a warm drink.  We all have our favourite winter drinks and Jas loves her masala chai that is steeped with ginger, cardamom, cloves and fennel seeds. If you need something to warm you up while outdoors and make your walk a little more fun, take your drink along with you. 
  3. Plant a winter garden…yes you can grow a garden in winter too! Giving yourself a project during winter is great motivation to spend some time outdoors.  During winter kale, potatoes, onions and garlic can be planted and cultivated. You can even reward yourself with some hot aloo paratha after you have harvested your crop.  
  4. Start a plant family! If you don’t have that green thumb for outdoors bring the greenery inside with some indoor plants to help liven up your home. For many people with mobility issues, having some indoor plants will be a great way to be close to nature and reduce psychological stress. 
  5. Bring the outdoors, indoors by sitting on your patio or by a window. Even if you are inside, you can still enjoy the sight of beautiful white snow and listen to the pitter patter of raindrops outside. 

The bottom line? No matter what your strategy, experiencing nature doesn’t have to be a huge commitment. “It doesn’t have to be complicated – go outside and observe the sights around you,” says Dr. Kang. “Really make it a part of your life every day.” All of us need fresh air and connecting with nature year round is essential for our well being. 

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by Dr. Shimi Kang and Jas Hundal

Dr. Shimi Kang is an award-winning Harvard trained medical doctor, researcher, and expert on science-based solutions for health, happiness, and achievement. Dr. Kang is a practicing psychiatrist with over 20 years of experience. She is the author of the #1 bestseller The Dolphin Parent & The Tech Solution, a Clinical Associate Professor at UBC, the founder of Future-ready Minds, Co-Founder of Get Sparky app, & host of the YouTube show, Mental Wealth with Dr. Shimi Kang. She is a proud mom of 3 & the recipient of the Governor General’s Award for Leadership, and the Jubilee Medal for community service.

Jas Hundal is a Registered Social Worker and the Clinical Director of Counselling at Future-ready Minds, She has her Masters of Social Work from the University of Victoria and a Certificate in Advanced Facilitation & Consultation from the Justice Institute of BC. In her career Jas has worked predominantly with South Asian men and women, to provide essential services in the Punjabi language. She is trained in a range of therapeutic modalities and has worked diligently in the field of mental health and addictions since 2006.  Jas is passionate about helping members of her community learn ways to improve their mental health by using holistic and strength-based practices.