Feel the wind to lower stress and anxiety
When most of us go outside for a run or a walk or a bike ride, we usually prefer calm days or favourable breezes to make the effort more enjoyable. Not so in the Netherlands, where some people seek out windy days instead. They’ve being doing it for more than a century — and even have a special name for it.
The practice is called ‘uitwaaien’, which “literally translates to ‘outblowing’,” explains Caitlin Meyer, a lecturer at the University of Amsterdam’s Department of Dutch Linguistics. “It’s basically the activity of spending time in the wind, usually by going for a walk or a bike ride,” she told Alice Fleerackers, a freelance writer and doctoral student at Canada’s Simon Fraser University. “Uitwaaien is something you do to clear your mind and feel refreshed — out with the bad air, in with the good. It’s seen as a pleasant, easy, and relaxing experience — a way to de-stress or escape from daily life.”
A growing body of evidence suggests there might be something to it. “Pretty well every group of people benefits from being outdoors in the presence of nature,” says Jules Pretty, Professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex. “It takes us out of the stresses and anxieties of the rest of life.” Over the last 15 years, he’s explored how a range of outdoor activities — such as walking, cycling, and even farming —affect human psychology. He’s found that we can increase our wellbeing after spending as little as five minutes in nature, including improved self-worth, mood, and sense of identity.
Other researchers have found similar results, linking nature walks with reduced levels of depression, perceived stress, and negative emotions. Some research goes even further to show that walking in nature can help reduce headaches, improve immune function, and even, as in the case of the noted forest-bathing studies, increase anti-cancer protein production.
While research into the benefits of water isn’t as well-established, evidence does suggest these “blue spaces” may be equally — or perhaps even more — beneficial to mental wellbeing. For example, people who live closer to the coast, as many Dutch do, report better physical and psychological health than those further inland. Water may have a restorative effect, helping people overcome negative emotions and diminish mental distress. Apparently, when it comes to relaxation and recovery, a little “outblowing” at the beach might be just what the doctor ordered.
There are theories as to why spending time in nature might be good for us. Qing Li, a physician at Nippon Medical School Hospital and the President of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, and his team have spent years studying the effects of phytoncides, the antibacterial and antimicrobial substances that trees and other plants release into the air to help them fight disease and harmful organisms. When humans breathe in these substances their health can improve. From several studies, phytoncides have also been shown to boost immune function, increase anti-cancer protein production, reduce stress hormones, improve mood, and help people relax.
Pretty attributes the restorative power of natural spaces to their immersive quality. He says activities such as watching shorebirds or collecting seashells on the beach can be engaging enough to help us temporarily deactivate the default mode network located in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which allows us to scheme, plan, and innovate. The trade-off is that it’s also extremely active. “The one thing we haven’t got is an off-switch for our thoughts,” he says. As a result, many of us “find ourselves living our lives on simmer—[like we’ve] got a pot on the stove that’s almost ready to boil.”
In the long-term, this constant low-grade stress can damage our health and wellbeing, increasing our chances of cardiovascular disease, inflammation, and other dangers. In our over-stressed society, listening to the sound of the wind or admiring the colours of ocean waves may be among the few ways we can truly unwind.