How does spending time in the mountains affect our mental health?

When it comes to a ski holiday – the jury’s out on if you come back physically healthier (clean air, daily exercise, etc) or, less so (indulgent chalet food, copious amounts of après)…

However, nearly everyone reports feeling mentally refreshed and uplifted after a stint in the mountains. This goes beyond those enjoying a catered chalet holiday; spending time in mountains of any kind seems to have a positive effect on our mental health and wellbeing, but why?

Nature’s effect on our mental wellbeing

The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness week is nature. Many people discovered, or rediscovered, how good being in nature made them feel, during lockdown when indoor-options were closed. But the reasons for nature’s amazing effect on our mental health and wellbeing are hard to pinpoint. “Spending time in nature is linked to both cognitive benefits and improvements in mood, mental health and emotional well-being,” says the American Psychological Association. This could be accessed by walking to work via a city park; looking out across green fields at school; pottering in a garden; or venturing to the mountains, the coast or jungle!

Some people claim that spending time in nature reduces stress and is very calming. This is especially the case for snowy environments. We associate snow with calm, purity and it generated a sense of awe. The fragile seasons and transitory snowfall remind us to exist considerately and with respect for everything around us. Some people say that spending time in extreme landscapes – be it the sea, mountain ranges or vast forests – realigns their sense of perspective, significance and priorities. Some studies even suggest that just looking at images of nature, and listening to recorded nature sounds can have similar, stress-reducing properties. However, we should be cautious to use technologically-generated nature to reap its benefits. Scientists widely agree that our increasing screen-time and urbanised lives are actually what make us respond so well to a bit of time in the wild.

The cold’s effect on our mental wellbeing

The cold and ski holidays go hand in hand. In fact, our beloved ski trips can’t happen without it – but once in it, we do our best to keep the cold at bay! In the mountains, central heating, open fires and specially designed clothing keep away the cold. Many people feel that warm, cosy environments do good things for their mental wellbeing. The ‘hygge’ phenomenon when wild a few years ago, when the Danish term perfectly encapsulated what people were feeling.

On the other hand, some people actually seek out freezing temperatures for the mental-health benefits. Submerging yourself in an ice bath or freezing lake, rolling starkers in fresh snow, or having your body shut in a ‘cryotherapy chamber’ all sound pretty unpleasant. However, this is sort-of the point: putting your body in very cold situations creates a shock/stress response. With gradual repetition, your body becomes more efficient at dealing with, and preparing for, this state of stress. This ‘preparedness’ becomes transferrable across all sorts of other stresses in our lives. Cold-therapy champion, Wim Hof (of the Wim Hof method), suggests cold body therapy is linked to improved quality of sleepmore focus, and even to an improved immune response. Now, don’t say you’re not up for a quick roll around in the snow outside your chalet?!

Sunlight’s effect on our mental wellbeing

Spending time in the mountains, skiing or otherwise, generally means spending more time outside. If you’re increasing the amount of vitamin D you’re absorbing from the sun, chances are you’re experiencing some pretty great mental health benefits. We more commonly recognise vitamin D as calcium’s partner in strengthening our bones, but low levels of vitamin D are now also be associated with depression, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and schizophrenia, studies have shown. The impact of vitamin D is so important that people who live in countries near the poles, or mountainous regions experiencing lower-levels of sunlight at certain times of the year, will use special lamps or supplements to top up their levels.

Exercise’s effect on our mental wellbeing

Often, we spend time in the mountains to do exercise. This could be skiing, snowboarding, hiking, climbing, mountain biking etc. Physical exercise is dubbed a ‘wonder drug’ by GPs, who prescribe it (often in combination with medication) as a treatment for depression. Studies show that sport and exercise, like skiing and snowboarding, lower our levels of stress and improve our moods. This includes: feeling more content, calm, awake, enthusiastic, positive and alert. This happens because the stress-hormones in our body, like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are reduced by exercise; while endorphins (chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators) are boosted.

Physical exercise is effective at both managing the symptoms and even preventing the onset of depression, says Sport England. It’s amazing to think that, even if you don’t suffer from depression, the exercise you are doing is future-proofing your mental health. Furthermore, feeling fitter, more skilled and connecting with friends or a sports community all work wonders for boosting our self-esteem and confidence.

Mental health in the mountains

Of course, spending time in the mountains brings everyone different effects. For some, the benefits are life-changing, for other people it may just be a temporary, light-relief. It’s important to combine spending time in nature with a healthy lifestyle, speaking openly about your feelings, and considering reaching out to a counsellor, therapist or doctor if things start getting hard to control.

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