Use the Colors in Nature to Relieve Stress and Improve Mood
Updated: Nov 16, 2021
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As I’m writing this post, I can see the leaves on my maple tree beginning to turn red for autumn. There’s a small, yellow aspen leaf tucked between the pages of a book on the table beside me—I’m pressing it to use for a bookmark craft project in the near future.
I picked up that little aspen leaf last weekend when we drove to look at the fall colors in the mountains. Green pine trees and golden aspens covered the mountainsides, and plump red rosehips dotted the bushes on each side of the trail we were on.
It was gorgeous.
Watching nature as the seasons change always makes me feel like everything is right with the world. It’s a lovely escape from the news and social media, and it reminds me of the importance of taking time to reconnect with the natural world in all its beauty.
I truly feel like it’s good for my mental health.
As we drove home, I saw a rainbow in the distance, and I smiled. Another amazing display of color in nature.
What is color?
Colors are what we see when wavelengths of light are reflected. Warm colors (red, orange, yellow) have longer wavelengths than cool colors (green, blue, indigo, violet). Objects reflect these wavelengths, and we perceive them as various hues and saturations.
We know that the amount of light we receive affects our circadian rhythm (our internal clock) and that people tend to suffer more from depression during the short days of winter (ever heard of the “winter blues” or Seasonal Affective Disorder | SAD?).
But do the colors we see in nature affect our moods, too? Or is it really just about daylight?
Ultraviolet (UV) levels from the sun are lower during the winter. We can’t see UV rays, but they still affect our energy levels and our mood by altering how much vitamin D and serotonin our bodies produce.
Can we also affect our energy levels, lighten our mood, increase positivity, and create calmness in our lives simply by surrounding ourselves with the right colors? For many people, the answer is yes.
Let’s examine the colors that we associate with certain times of the year or places in nature and how that might affect the way we feel.
Green is the color most often associated with spring. It’s what we see peeking through the melting snow when the first blades of grass begin reaching up toward the sun. Tiny green leaf buds begin to unfold on the tips of tree branches that were previously barren and gray, and we know that warmer days are coming.
In the spring, we feel like the world is fresh, new, and invigorating. We feel our energy increase, and many of us engage in spring cleaning to freshen our homes. The soft greens and gentle hues of spring help us come back into the present moment and live mindfully.
In “Green is Good for You,” the American Psychological Association points out a study conducted in the 1970s that led to decades of research about how the color green affects people in nature, at home, and in the workplace.
What they discovered is that looking at green, natural surroundings improved the way people felt about their jobs: “... office workers with a view of nature liked their jobs more, enjoyed better health and reported greater life satisfaction.”
Cool colors, like blue and green, have a calming effect. Blue is a calming color, and green is often thought of as a healing color, representing renewal and balance.
Many people think of healthy eating when they see green associated with food—think about fresh salads or a green smoothie. Maybe that’s why spring detoxes are such a trendy way to help shed extra pounds gained from the comfort foods of winter.
Summer is associated with brightness, crisp colors, and carefree days. Think of red rose petals and watermelon, bright blue skies, and vibrant meadows filled with flowers in every color.
We bring these bright colors into our clothing and accessories during the summer, too. Children play with beach balls in primary colors. We grab red-checked picnic blankets for backyard barbecues and float on yellow rafts in pools of crystal-clear water.
In summer, the days are longer, and we are exposed to more light. Our energy levels increase, and we crave outdoor adventures, like hiking, camping, and spending time surrounded by nature.
During the summer months, the bright colors in nature help lighten our mood, increase our activity levels, and encourage us to spend time doing things we enjoy.
As autumn approaches, the bright colors of summer fade into warm, dark shades of gold, orange, and red. The changing leaves remind me of a flickering flame, and I imagine that nature uses these warm hues to signal that it is time to gather firewood and prepare for the cold winter months ahead.
The color orange is associated with friendship, warmth, and creativity. Orange also stimulates the appetite—many restaurants use yellow and orange in their color schemes—and may trigger us to start craving warming comfort foods.
The muted, darker colors of fall and shorter daylight hours can sometimes contribute to feelings of sadness or a longing for easier times or the comfort of friendship. We try to stretch our days out by participating in evening activities, like picking pumpkins or snuggling with loved ones under a warm blanket on a hayride.
Gray and brown—like wintry skies and the bark of trees that have lost their leaves—are considered to evoke wistfulness, sadness, and negative feelings. Perhaps that’s why we use these colors as neutral bases in our homes and add bright pops of cheerful colors to lift the mood when we decorate.
With its short days and the abundance of dull colors in nature, winter encourages us to stay inside, rest, and enjoy the bounty we harvested in warmer months. But in our busy society, we tend to do the opposite of what nature is telling us to do.
We fill our cold winter months with holiday shopping, decorating (adding bright holiday colors to our homes and offices), and hosting dinner parties and gift exchanges with friends and family. We lengthen our days by staying up late instead of getting the extra rest winter’s long nights instruct us to do.
As a result, we exhaust ourselves and may overeat (animals eat less in the winter because of hibernation or scarcity of resources … but we often eat more!). By the time spring arrives, we can hardly wait to find ways to cleanse our homes and bodies and find renewed energy.
Use color to your advantage
So how can we take advantage of the colors of nature and use them to relieve stress, lift our mood, and improve our energy levels?
Take advantage of natural light
When we open our curtains or blinds and allow natural light to fill our homes, we can become more in tune with the rising and setting sun and restore our natural circadian rhythm.
Use a sun lamp
Okay, this isn’t exactly natural light, but it can bring more healthy light into your home during the fall and winter months. Sun lamps that mimic outdoor light have been shown to help people who suffer from SAD.
Take time to look at the changing seasons
The seasons change whether we’re looking at them or not. But setting aside time every day to reconnect with nature and take in the changing seasonal colors can help us feel a sense of renewal and connection to the land.
Take a walk outside for stress relief
Whether you live off the grid in a remote location or spend your weekdays inside an office building in a busy city, try to find a few minutes to go for a walk outside every day and just breathe.
Look at the sky—what color is it today? Look at the landscape—are the trees or grasses changing, growing, or going to seed? Are there flowers nearby, and if so, what colors are they blessing your life with today?
Visit a green space
Many cities and towns have dedicated green spaces or parks where you can catch a glimpse of nature in between out-of-town excursions. Sit under a tree or on a bench, and reduce your stress level as you listen to the natural sounds and gaze at the greenery.
Participate in outdoor activities
I’ve never been skiing. There’s something terrifying about the idea of crashing into a tree while sliding down a mountain on a narrow board. But I love walking in nature no matter what time of year it is.
Get involved with a physical activity you can do outside: play frisbee, make a snowman, join a sport, or plan a picnic. Let the sunlight and breeze remind you what season it is and boost your mental health.
Bring nature inside
Indoor plants can change with the seasons, too. Plants placed near a sunny window are more likely to have seasonal variations than houseplants that rely on artificial light. Decorate your home or office with blooming plants and decor that matches what nature is displaying outside. Drape a pumpkin-colored throw over the arm of your sofa, or place a vase filled with spring flowers on your desk or table.
Watch the sun rise and set
Did you know exposure to blue light can lower your blood pressure? During the day, when blue light is scattered the most, the sky appears blue. But the sky turns vibrant shades when the sun rises and sets each day.
Help yourself reset your internal clock by taking a few minutes at dusk and dawn to bask in the pinks, oranges, and purples of the hours between day and night. Listen to the early morning or late evening natural soundscapes, and fill yourself with positive emotion.
Want more color in your life? Click here to see how coloring reduces stress.