BY DR. JENNIFER SULLIVAN
If you are feeling sick and tired of socially distancing, you are not alone. After being cooped up at home for several months now, it’s no wonder many of us are experiencing ‘cabin fever,’ or what health experts are referring to as “quarantine fatigue.” Though not an official diagnosis, quarantine fatigue involves symptoms such as restlessness, irritability, fatigue, lack of motivation, and difficulty concentrating. However, each of us will experience quarantine fatigue in a different way.
Quarantine fatigue occurs when factors associated with the pandemic and prolonged physical distancing begin to take their toll on us. Over time, we become worn down by stress, loneliness, lack of stimulation, boredom, and the inability to access our regular support systems. We crave social contact, and long for the freedom we had pre-COVID-19.
But as the government lockdown is slowly lifted and we begin to transition to a “new normal,” we must remain vigilant, health experts warn. As we ease up on social distancing, big outdoor spaces are better than being indoors, says Dr. Tam, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada.
One of the distinct advantages we have in battling quarantine fatigue is being from Northern Ontario, where we are surrounded by nature and the great outdoors. The beneficial effects of nature on mental health are well-documented. Spending time in nature has been shown to boost mood, increase energy and feelings of vitality, improve sleep, reduce anxiety (including lowering blood pressure, muscle tension, and heart rate), and improve creative thinking. Time spent in nature has also been found to reduce irritability, tension headaches, indigestion, and even reduce the symptoms of ADHD.
A practice often prescribed in Japan for its mental health benefits is forest bathing. This practice is gaining traction in North America as well, and involves “bathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through our senses,” explains Dr. Qing Li, author of Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness. It is a more mindful approach to being in nature. Forest bathing doesn’t centre on exercise, or hiking, or jogging, says Li, “It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch”. This approach to reaping the benefits of nature involves leaving our smartphone at home, being mindful, and soaking in all the beauty that nature has to offer.
How much time do we need to spend in nature to reap the benefits? According to the findings of a recent meta-analysis that examined the results of 14 studies, as little as 10 minutes in nature results in some improvement in focus and mood. However, 50 minutes in nature was found to be optimal for mental health.
Even if you are unable to get out into the forest, you can experience its mental health benefits by simply walking around your neighbourhood or spending time in your backyard. “Studies have proven that even the smallest bit of nature—a single tree, a small patch of flowers, a house plant—can generate health benefits,” says Dr. Kathleen Wolf, an expert on the health benefits of nature.
As physical distancing protocols are slowly being lifted and we are figuring out what our “new normal” looks like, spending time in nature is an important strategy for coping with the effects of quarantine fatigue and improving our overall mental health. It doesn’t matter how you get your dose of Vitamin N (nature)—spending time in your backyard, walking around your neighbourhood, taking your exercise routine outside, forest bathing, or camping in the great outdoors—just get out there (at a safe distance from each other, of course)!
“Changing the Conversation” is a monthly column by Jennifer Sullivan, Psychologist and CEO of Sullivan + Associates Clinical Psychology, that focuses on normalizing mental health issues through education and public awareness. It appears on the Healthstyle page on the second Tuesday of each month.