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Under the spell of the seasons: Navigating mental health in nature

There’s a quiet magic at the turning of the seasons, when things that were gradually changing suddenly appear in the foreground. As humid summer days give way to crisp autumn evenings, a thrill begins in my heart – soon the daylight will grow shorter, the weather colder and the earth quieter as we move into my favorite season: fall.

The riot of color that explodes across the land; the stormy gray days and cool temperatures perfect for bonfires and flannels; the smell of wet, organic earth after the rain; the full moon glowing bright over barren treetops – these things set my soul alight. Despite how much I love it, though, fall is the hardest time of year for me.

A tall person with blonde and purple hair pushes a handcart full of pumpkins through a pumpkin patch.

Among other conditions, I live with seasonal pattern depression, formerly known as seasonal affective disorder. It’s a major depressive disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of depression in late fall and winter (though some experience it in spring or summer), with alternating periods of normal mood the rest of the year. People with SPD may experience hypersomnia, daytime fatigue, lethargy, hopelessness, trouble concentrating, lack of interest in usual activities, decreased socialization, overeating and more. It’s more common in younger people, women, people with other mood disorders or other mental health conditions, and those who live far north or far south of the equator or in cloudy regions.

Many people – between 10 to 20% in the United States – go through a mild version of seasonal pattern depression, often called the “winter blues.” SPD goes far beyond this, affecting my daily existence in extreme ways. Like clockwork each year, I can track when I start to self-isolate, when I start to shut down, when I start to feel a numbing chill settle through me like a low-lying fog.

Two dead trees stand guard over an overgrown garden framed by a fog-covered farm field.

With any chronic condition, there are good days and bad days. I celebrate anytime I’m able to get out of bed and function like a normal human. But on my bad days, it’s a bit like being powered by a battery that can only ever hold a 10% charge at maximum – and some days I start at zero.

Even with therapy, medication, treatments and coping strategies, it’s really hard to live with. I struggled a lot when I was younger, often feeling betrayed by my body and its inability to do what I so desperately wanted and needed to do – get out of bed, attend to my to-do list, complete basic tasks such as eating and work on projects that previously ignited such passion within me. But some days I just do not have the energy. My entire body feels heavy, as if I’m being weighed down by some invisible, oppressive force that turns my bones to lead and clouds my mind. It’s a frustrating experience, to have a desire for action but not the ability.

As I’ve grown older and learned to recognize the patterns within myself, I’ve come to understand my body better. Like the tides are inextricably tied to the moon and sunflowers chase the sun, so, too, am I tethered to the natural world. It’s an interesting paradigm shift, to take a step back from the modern pressures of life – constant screen time, juggling household tasks, navigating packed calendars – and realize I am not separate from nature: I am part of it – and it is part of me. The earth turns, summer slips into autumn, and in my heart, I hear nature’s call to slow down and rest. I haven’t always heeded that call, but I’ve learned to listen. As I’ve come to recognize my patterns, the better prepared I can be for their inevitable occurrence.

There are days when I need to feel nature around me to make it to tomorrow. Nature has always been – and will always be – a lifeline. I would not be here still if I did not have access to the outdoors. Whether it’s sitting on my porch to feel the wind brush across my cheek before it rattles the last leaves from the trees, suiting up to tend to my bees before their winter dormancy or feeling the chilly soil under my fingernails as I garden without gloves or shoes, my soul is soothed and my body feels lighter. It’s a reprieve from the heaviness that weighs upon me, and gives me the strength to keep going. I’ve found so many different ways to weather the seasons of my life, and in just as many ways my illness has given me a lens to understand myself. Mental health is just as important as physical health, and both are connected to our place in the natural world.

An overgrown garden in a grassy backyard with lilac and baby pink clouds in the background.

There’s a growing body of research surrounding mental health in the outdoors. According to a study from the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter, people who spend at least two hours a week in green spaces, whether a backyard, state park or other natural place, were substantially more likely to report good health and psychological well-being than those who don’t. This was found to be true across all demographics.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen a surge in interest in the outdoors. Trails are crowded with people looking to get outside, camping reservations have skyrocketed and more and more people are getting into the outdoors for the first time. This feels like a pivotal moment for our culture, a shift in our understanding of what it means to be human – and what it means to be part of the world around us.

A person wearing a bright yellow hat and large sunglasses sits underneath the raised and gnarled roots of an old tree.

Forging that strong relationship with nature – allowing ourselves to just exist out under the sky or amongst the trees – can be a fortifying bond with the world we share. Mental illness is often an isolating experience; but out in nature, I feel connected to something bigger than myself. And while it isn’t the only tool I use to survive, it is a grounding force. It is joy, it is revelation, it is vitality – it is life.

Sometimes you just need to find a reason to keep embracing life.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, mental illness had reached epidemic levels – and no one is untouched. In the U.S., 1 in 5 adults (that’s more than 52.9 million people) experience mental illness, and over half of adults with mental illness do not receive treatment. Over 2.5 million youth in the U.S. have severe depression. It’s more important than ever – especially during Suicide Prevention Awareness Month – to have these conversations, to take stock of ourselves, to learn more, to reach out, to connect, to support, to ask for help.

It can be really scary, especially if you’ve struggled alone. Especially if you don’t know where to start. But you aren’t alone, and things can get better. Take it from me.

There are many resources available to help ease the weight of mental illness. Whether you’re seeking better understanding of yourself or looking for a way to support a loved one, there are tools, information, programs, organizations and people who can help.

Check in with the people you care about, especially if they struggle seasonally, and get outdoors together. There are countless opportunities to forge that connection with nature and each other, whether that’s exploring a favorite trail or trying out a new outdoor activity. The outdoors will always be there for you.

It’s hard to see the next season coming sometimes, especially when things seem to change so slowly. But the lesson I’ve come away with from my experience with seasonal pattern depression is a recognition of nature’s cycles. The wheel of the year ever turns, and even the dark months pass with their own kind of magic.

Spring will always come.

A person with pale skin and large glasses stares off-camera. They are bundled in a plaid shawl and have two yellow and orange flowers behind their ear.

Emma Kukuk (they/them/theirs, she/her/hers) is a DNR communications representative who wants everyone who explores our great state to feel welcome, seen and heard. When they’re not busy writing, they can be found creating pyrographs inspired by nature, foraging or tending to their bees.