Winter Camping as an Antidepressant
Stephen Ilardi, Ph.D. is a depression researcher and author of a respected book (The Depression Cure) on curing depression. He writes:
Depressive illness (a debilitating illness that ravages the brain and robs people of their energy, their memory, their concentration, their ability to love and work and play — and, in many cases, even their will to live.) is sweeping the urbanized, industrialized world. In the U.S., the lifetime rate of clinical depression now stands at 23%, and it has doubled in the past decade.
The more “modern” a society’s way of life, the higher its rate of depression. The explanation is simple: The human body was never designed for the modern post-industrial environment. Modern hunter/gather groups and the Amish are largely devoid of depression.
Dr. Ilardi identifies a treatment for depression that focuses upon six modifiable lifestyle factors: aerobic exercise, omega-3 essential fatty acid supplementation, light exposure, sleep hygiene, social intimacy, behavioral activation, and anti-rumination techniques – that have each independently been demonstrated to have antidepressant properties.
Remarkably, five of the six key antidepressant elements are associated with winter camping.
Aerobic exercise is antidepressant; researchers have found it to be as effective as depression medications and it improves the function of brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. Winter camping is full of highly aerobic exercise such snowshoeing and cutting wood. There is nothing like the rush of completing a snowshoe trek and dropping your pack at the location designated as ‘camp for the night’.
Social intimacy helps protect against depression. Winter camping forges powerful bonds of friendship with fellow campers. Engaging in shared tasks, shared spaces, sitting around a fire at night and communicating forms strong social connections. I can honestly say that without winter camping I wouldn’t be friends with some of these people I camp with.
Anti-rumination techniques such as engaging in basic work activities counteract the toxic mental process of rumination — dwelling repeatedly on negative thoughts — a process that contributes to the onset and maintenance of depression. Trust me, when out winter camping, one is focused on the here and now of the immediate task; whether setting up a shelter, cooking a meal, or monitoring your comfort you live in the moment.
Light exposure from outdoor exposure to sunlight, helps reset the body clock (thereby protecting against depression by enhancing energy and hormone regulation) and also stimulates vitamin D synthesis in the skin (this vitamin in turn activates important genes in the brain that regulate mood).
Sleep quality is enhanced by exercise and sunlight exposure, shifting the brain into the deeper, more restorative stages of sleep that tend to disappear during an episode of depression. Winter camping is all about having a long comfortable night’s sleep.
In a nutshell: Winter Camping can be powerfully antidepressant.
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