All the ways skiing impacts our mental health
Skiing or snowboarding, as a holiday or hobby, is a unique and special pastime. Additionally, it brings to the table a wonderful mix of elements that have positive effects on our mental health and wellbeing
- Fitness and activity
- The outdoors and nature
- A passionate community
- Learning and developing skills
We gain these benefits in many ways, from annual family ski trips; to working season-based jobs; undertaking courses/qualifications in the mountains; and even being a professional snow-sports person. Source magazine explains, “Snow sports have a positive influence on youngsters, providing goals to work towards and teaching leadership skills. Exercise and spending time outdoors is also prescribed as an effective treatment for depression and anxiety. […] People come to the mountains to get away from the monotony of the nine-to-five or to escape their stressful, high-pressure jobs with huge commutes. Some of the best chalet hosts […] moved to the mountains because they craved a simpler life with more time to do what they loved.”
However, it is worth noting that the skiing world does present challenges to our wellbeing. Skiing is a privileged hobby or career, dependent on ample time, money and physical health. For this reason, stigma prevents people being able to speak openly about their mental health. People who are ‘lucky enough’ to be skiers or snowboarder (among other privileges) may not feel like they’re entitled to speak about having mental health issues. British pro snowboarders Ellie Soutter and Nelson Pratt were both ‘living the dream’ when their mental health struggles resulted in tragically ending their own lives.
On the other hand, what if you can’t even afford the privilege of time/health/funds to go skiing? Where does that leave your self-esteem? We’ve nearly all been part of a WhatsApp group where the holiday-budget is incrementally growing to past the point which we’re comfortable, right?! Additionally, for ski season workers, the tourism industry is an intense place to work. Seasonal work doesn’t offer the security of year-round employment and jobs are often low-paid. Staff are often far from some friends and family too.
Luckily, for the vast majority of us, the benefits of skiing on our mental health and wellbeing vastly outnumber the negative effects. In fact, most skiers say they find skiing, snowboarding or even just spending time in the mountains therapeutic. In the context of this article, mental wellbeing constitutes as the sense of feeling good about yourself and the world around you; feeling in control of your own life, connected to your surroundings and community, and having a sense of purpose. Mental health, in this context, is slightly more specific – relating to clinical issues like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, but also stress. So, what are the specific ways skiing and snowboarding affect our mental health and wellbeing?
Sports, physical exercise and mental health
Physical activity fits into three categories: exercise, sport and play. Skiing applies to people in different ways – as a tool to improve fitness, as a competitive sport, or just for fun and pleasure. The great thing is, all three types of physical activity have positive effects on our mental health and wellbeing.
Studies show that sport and exercise, like skiing and snowboarding, lower our levels of stress and improve our moods. This includes feeling more content, calm, awake, enthusiastic, positive and alert. This is because stress-hormones in our body, like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are reduced by exercise; while endorphins (chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators) are boosted.
“Exercise has been described as a “wonder drug” in preventing and managing mental health [issues]. Many GPs now prescribe physical activity for depression, either on its own or together with other treatments,” says Sport England. Amazingly, it’s “effective at both managing symptoms and even preventing the onset of depression.” Even if you don’t suffer from depression – it’s incredible to think that snow sports you are doing is future-proofing your mental health, in the same way it would your physical health.
So, does more equal more when it comes to exercise and mental health? Not necessarily. Over-exhaustion, burnout, injury and performance pressure can all have a negative effect on our mental health and wellbeing. Furthermore, getting into a sport, like skiing, in the first place can be intimidating. The charity Mind have put together very simple guides, to starting small with sports and fitness.
Nature, mountains and mental health
Similarly to physical exercise, it’s not surprising that spending time in nature is also beneficial to our mental health. Many people have found solace in walks in nature throughout lockdown. “Nature itself is the best physician,” Hippocrates supposedly said.
The reasons for the benefits, however, are less clearly understood. Some people say that spending time in extreme landscapes – be it the sea, mountains or vast forests – realigns their sense of significance and priorities: the feeling that we’re just a tiny dot on the planet. Journalist and author Richard Louv suggests “The greener the setting, the more the relief.” We’d want to alter that slightly (to include white!), but his statement does connect us to that top-of-the-mountain feeling of awe when you look out on a blanket of white (or green!).
The clinical benefits of spending time in nature also come from things like improved vitamin D and clean air quality. The impact of vitamin D is so important that people who live in Nordic countries, or mountainous regions experiencing lower-levels of sunlight at certain times of the year, will use special lamps or supplements to top up their levels. Low levels of vitamin D can be associated with depression, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and schizophrenia, studies have shown. The more time we spend outside, in nature, will help at preventing these issues.
The Mental health Foundation have a useful guide about getting into nature (with good tips if you don’t immediately have a ski resort or forest on your doorstep!). We also love Mind Over Mountains, who are an organisation that bring together hill-walking and mindfulness in nature, alongside experienced coaches and counsellors.
Snow, the cold and mental health
People have a love-hate relationship with the cold. When it comes to snow and skiing, we can’t do without it! But, unpleasant feelings of being consistently cold puts stress on our body and this affects mental wellbeing, irritability, cognition and decision-making.
For the most part, central heating and great technical gear mean we can stay warm, even when it is chilly. But some people actually pursue testing temperatures, claiming the mental benefits. Cold therapy, or cold-water therapy is rapidly gaining popularity. You may have heard of the Wim Hof method – Wim suggests cold body therapy is linked to improved quality of sleep, more focus, and even to an improved immune response. The benefits of dipping in icy water, for example, are connected to your body’s shock response. Over time, your body becomes more resilient to, and more prepared for, stresses (such as cold-water shock). And this becomes transferrable across all sorts of other ‘stresses’. You might get funny looks, but try a quick roll-around in some fresh snow on your next ski trip! You might think we’re kidding, but a spa in London has opened a ‘snow chamber’ so that guests can do exactly that.
Aside from temperature and light levels, winter also has a lot of positive connotations – the holiday and festive season, new-year’s resolutions, cosy nights in, rest and perspective. People associate snow with calm, purity and a sense of awe. Fragile seasons, ecosystems and snowfall remind us that the world needs our respect and protection, and to tread lightly.
Community, friends and mental health
Being part of a group of friends that enjoy skiing together; spending quality time with family; or being part of a professional network or team in the ski industry can all bring a strong sense of community to our lives. Beyond this, there are tonnes of forums and groups online, sharing experiences and building digital communities for outdoors fans.
Why is this important? It links back to our definition of ‘mental wellbeing’. To feel our best, humans (as ‘pack animals’) need to feel connected to our surroundings and community and having a sense of purpose and influence within it.
The negatives here come when feel excluded or disconnected from these communities – in the ski world we compare and criticise ourselves based on social circles, skills and ability, career progression and even our kit! Comparison is the enemy of self-esteem and this can have a terrible effect on mental wellbeing. People also experience discrimination from others, based on exactly the same things! It’s key to be aware as you can, and always challenge these barriers – even if they don’t apply to you.
There are some great examples in the skiing world. Adaptive skiing, for example, is a growing industry. Organisations, such as BASI, ski schools, and ski instructor courses all have a duty to identify and remove discrimination and exclusivity from their services.
Learning new skills and mental health
If you’re on a mission to improve your skiing technique, perhaps you’re learning about how to ski off-piste, or maybe you’re even undertaking a training course or BASI qualifications – you’ll hopefully be seeing some positive effects on your mental wellbeing. Upskilled says that learning a new skill improves your brain health and memory, increases energy levels, build self-esteem and confidence, and distracts you from stress. It can even boost your immunity. This is mostly down to building new neural pathways and the release of dopamine (a ‘feel-good’ chemical that is release when you succeed in something).
Of course, learning new skills has its challenges too. No one likes being a beginner again and the process often involves lots of failing before you succeed. This wreaks havoc with our confidence and ignites self-criticism! In a high-stress exam situation, like BASI qualifications, we need to be very aware of people’s mental health. The most important thing, for an organisation like BASI to do, is to establish a culture of openness and clear channels of communication. Open communication needs to be combined with education on the signs that someone’s mental wellbeing is being affected and the symptoms of specific mental health problems. For us, this should filter down from BASI, to trainers, to instructors, to learners/students.
Skiing, snowboarding and mental health
Ultimately, we feel very lucky to be able to enjoy a sport that offers so many benefits to our mental health. This counts across the spectrum – if you’re skiing on holiday, if you’re a snow-sports professional, if you’re a seasonal worker, or if you’re undertaking a qualifications course. Make the most of the wonderful elements that skiing brings to your life, but keep a good eye out for any negative effects should they start creeping in.
Your first port of call should be to speak to someone you trust about how you feel. You might even want to book a call with a doctor, counsellor or therapist. These can happen on the phone, Skype or instant messenger if you don’t want to see someone in person. Consult the internet with caution! We all know there’s lots of rubbish on the internet, but there are also lots of brilliant resources too. Visit samaritans.org or betterhelp.com, or any of the links throughout this article.
Finally, the Ellie Soutter Foundation is supporting young snow sports athletes through funding initiatives and mental health awareness. Nelson’s Tour de Test Valley is a fundraising bike ride around Hampshire, supporting CALM.
This article was published on 11t May 2021 and comes from the team at SnowSkool who run BASI instructor courses in Méribel, Three Valleys.