ADHD & The Great Outdoors

two people standing on rocks beside the river
Two Mile River, Chilkoot Trail, Bennett Lake area

Howdy, What’s Up Yukon readers! In this month’s edition, I’d like to talk to you about my experience of moving from a populated southeastern Ontario city, to Old Crow, Yukon, and the surprising effect that had on my ADHD.

What is more debilitating—the disability itself or the environment we find ourselves in?

I stumbled upon this wonderful quote (origin unknown) and, unfortunately, have never been able to find the original author (if anyone knows, please tell me). I’ve always loved this quote and it became very personal and relevant to me after a significant geographical change.

In 2016, my wife and I decided to move from a city in southeastern Ontario to the small, isolated community of Old Crow, Yukon. For those of you who don’t know, Old Crow is the only fly-in community in the Yukon, home to approximately 250 people. I knew the move would bring some changes to our lives, but there was an unexpected positive change on my ADHD and mental health.

Living in Old Crow, home of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, I was spending significant amounts of time outside and exercising outdoors almost daily. My previously long commute to work, stuck in traffic, shifted to a beautiful walk to work, every day. My jah (“friend” in Gwich’in), despite me being a total city slicker at first, took me out on his traditional territory—hunting, fishing, snaring, and chopping and hauling wood. It wasn’t long until I noticed that my mental health, as well as my ADHD, was better than ever before. Was it the increase in physical activity? Being surrounded by nature? The amazing people? The lack of flashing neon signs and hustle and bustle of a big city? I think it was all of the above, but for some reason I wasn’t expecting such a stark difference.

Research has long shown the importance and benefits of being outside. However, studies are now pinpointing the amazing benefits of “green time” (being outside) for people with ADHD. Researchers Frances E. Kuo, PhD and Andrea Faber Taylor, PhD found that children with ADHD “who participated in outdoor activities, who spent structured and unstructured time in nature, appeared to have a reduction in their ADHD symptoms.” They found that “acute exposures to nature—sort of one-time doses—have short-term impacts on ADHD symptoms.” An area they were curious about was whether or not the outdoor scene had to change (new outdoor stimuli) for ADHD folks, to keep the brain activated. What they found was “whether it was a backyard, a school playground, a city park or a stand of trees in the neighborhood [sic], there were improvements in symptoms and behavior ( after children had green time.”

Interestingly, Dr Rachel Kaplan and Dr Stephen Kaplan describe two types of attention: “directed or task-driven, and fascination.” They go on to explain that too much directed or task-driven attention can lead to “attention fatigue” or brain fatigue. I can attest to this 100 per cent! As a person with ADHD, it takes a lot more mental energy to sustain my attention, when compared to my neurotypical (non-ADHD) peers. If you think of kids in class or adults at work, we spend all day trying to force our brains to focus on something that we might not inherently find interesting—this can be mentally exhausting. Imagine exercising for eight hours a day (or five hours for kids in school). How exhausted would your body be? Now imagine that within your brain … It’s honestly draining!

Dr. Kaplan and Dr. Kaplan (I love it!) argue that attention fatigue can lead to impulsivity and distractibility. They explain that being out in nature allows our brains to shift from task-driven attention to fascination, which allows our brain to finally rest. Dr. Stephen Kaplan said, “If you can find an environment where the attention is automatic (i.e., the environment intrigues you without expectation), you allow directed attention to rest. And that means an environment that’s strong on fascination.” Ah, this resonates with me so much! While I absolutely love my career change from an educational assistant to an ADHD coach, I’m still not used to the long hours in front of the computer. I have to be much more disciplined with “nature breaks” and “exercise breaks.” Whenever I begin to feel that attention fatigue, I will quickly pop outside, for a five- to 10-minute walk in the woods, and feel the relief of the switch from task-driven attention to fascination. It’s a wonderful reprieve!

Moving from southeastern Ontario to Old Crow, I had no idea what to expect. I knew many changes abounded, but I had no idea it would have this significant impact on my ADHD. The nature that surrounds Old Crow is vast (and beyond stunning). I truly believe that the ability to walk out my door and be immersed in nature, in seconds, had a significant and long-lasting, positive impact on my ADHD, as well as on my mental health. (Did you know there is a strong link between having ADHD and mental health challenges? This is called comorbidities. I’ll focus on that more in my next article.)

I don’t live in Old Crow. anymore, but the lessons I learned there continue to guide my daily life here in Whitehorse. As much as possible, I try to incorporate “nature therapy” in my daily routine, as a strategy for managing my ADHD.

Now, here’s my huge disclaimer: Having said all this, I also know a lot of people with ADHD who love living in places like Vancouver, Toronto or Montréal, and they are thriving! I want to reiterate that this was my experience and journey of self-discovery of what works for me. This is the beauty of the question: “What is more debilitating—the disability itself or the environment we find ourselves in?” The challenge is to find the environment that best suits our needs, where the attention is automatic and the fascination is strong. My question to you: What environment best suits your needs?

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