January is mental wellness month so it seems like the perfect time to talk about the wellness benefits during winter of welcoming nature into your space. Talking about the how your garden can help your mental well being in January might seem strange because well, it's winter! But this is often the time we need nature's medicine most and there is still a lot to be gained even when it's too cold to leave the house.
Two of the biggest benefits in winter come from trees and birds. Studies have shown that even looking at images of trees can lower blood pressure, stress and anxiety levels. That's just pictures, not even the real thing! When it comes to actually immersing yourself in trees, you can look to the the recently popularized concept of forest bathing or shinrin-yoku. Shinrin-yoku is a practice that emerged in Japan in the 1980's as a way to reconnect with nature and disconnect from technology. It has since become a popular form of nature therapy for many people around the world, even more so during this pandemic when getting outside has sometimes been the only reason many of us have left the house. Taking a walk among the trees not only provides the benefits of walking and getting much needed exercise but research has shown decreases in cortisol levels that result in a lowering of anxiety and stress levels. The trees themselves are also providing fresh oxygen and releasing chemicals that provide a boost to our immune systems through antimicrobial properties and boosting cancer fighting proteins. While this full immersion is providing the most benefits, sometimes we just don't have the time or motivation to get outside. In that case, having a tree outside your window regardless of whether it has leaves or not can provide some much needed stress relief. A recent study in Poland showed that even during the winter, people who looked at a winter forest landscape compared to a typical urban landscape had lower stress levels after 15 minutes.
The other benefit of those trees outside comes with the birds that may find them. Where there is shelter and food, wildlife will inevitably be! Calgary is lucky in that we have abundant natural habitat available year round to support a variety of birds that also aren't shy about visiting backyards. The 2021 Christmas bird count documented 70 species throughout the city with 35 species being found in backyards! Among those are the ever cheerful black-capped chickadees, downy woodpeckers, Northern flickers and common redpolls. If that all just sounded like gobbeldygook, that's okay, you don't need to know the names of birds to get the benefits! One simple benefit of looking outside at the birds is the ability to shift your focus, even momentarily. Sometimes we find ourselves sitting and staring at screens and eventually the ability to keep taking in what is in front of us becomes difficult. Shifting your focus away from the screen, even for a moment and looking at the birds can help reset your mind and help you realign your thoughts. I just did it now and it helped me finish these sentences!
Watching the birds also has the ability to lower your stress in the same way that trees do. It provides a connection to something outside of yourself and with all the chaos we have been facing these last two years, connecting with something else might just be the best thing you can do. Watching the birds flit about, searching for food, chattering away to each other or even collectively evading predators can remind you that there is more out there than what is on the news.
Recent research has also suggested that listening to birds can lower your stress. Studies conducted in England during the pandemic showed that listening to bird songs consciously lowered stress levels and feelings of mental fatigue. There is a caveat to the research though, perceptions of the bird they were listening to plays a big part. For some, the sound of house finches and chickadees outside is delightful but for others it may be irritating and just noisy. While the sound of a magpie certainly makes many people crazy, it usually has the opposite effect on me. When magpies are calling in the yard, it usually means something is happening and so I usually get snapped away from whatever I am engrossed in to check out what is happening! In this way, even though it may not be an overly pleasant sound, even the magpies are helping me by redirecting my focus for a moment or two. If you have the time to sit and watch the yard for a while, you can also take part in Project Feederwatch, a citizen science project that helps document changes in bird populations over time. In this way, you have the opportunity to be a part of something bigger and for many this offers a sense of purpose and benefits their overall wellbeing.
Winter can be hard on us for so many reasons and the continual uncertainty we are seeing these days is making it even harder. If you can, take the time to go for a walk or even look outside, your mind and body will thank you.
Begum, Tamanna (October 8, 2020). How listening to birds can transform our mental health. Natural History Museum. https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/how-listening-to-bird-song-can-transform-our-mental-health.html
Bielinis, E., Takayama, N., Boiko, S., Omelon, A. & Bielinis, L. (2018). The effect of winter forest bathing on psychological relaxation of young Polish adults. Urban Forestry and Urban Greening 29, 276-283.
Qing, Li (2010). Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine 15(1), 9-17.
Ray, Heather (October 5, 2021). A Dose of Nature: Why Birding Will Boost Your Mental Health. Birds and Blooms. https://www.birdsandblooms.com/birding/birding-basics/birding-health/
Project Feederwatch Canada: https://www.birdscanada.org/you-can-help/project-feederwatch/