For decades, psychologists, psychiatrists, and researchers have been trying to better understand the healing role of nature for those seeking to mend wounds of the soul. However, the practice of healing in nature may be as old as humanity itself. Only recently though, has our society began to take this notion seriously, as a steady flow of research studies reveal what has long been known by those who have found healing in nature: nature is good medicine for the soul, while the modern world is posing unique threats to our wellbeing.
Imagine for a moment a wolf, sitting in a 1600 square foot enclosure with little exposure to direct sunlight, dirt, plant life, other animals, or other wolves (it is a pack animal after all). Imagine it eats a diet of highly processed foods and is constantly bombarded with stressful stimuli. How do you imagine that wolf's physical and psychological health would be? How might it react if it were provoked in some way? Does it matter if this wolf was born in captivity - not knowing the natural habitat and world that it has been biologically adapted to live in through evolution?
Now, consider what you and this wolf share in common... Both humans and wolves are a product of millions of years of evolution to live in the natural world. We both evolved to live in communities of support. We both evolved for a natural diet rather than one of processed foods. We both require plenty of physical exercise to be healthy. Neither of us are well suited to live or spend most of our time in such an isolated enclosure... but, it seems that most of us humans do. It is also important to ask, do we both need a strong connection to the natural world, our habitat, to be psychologically and emotionally healthy? The answer, which may seem blatantly obvious to some, is yes, according to a growing body of research. Why then, have we created a lifestyle and culture that is so far removed from our biological needs?
Studies estimate that most US citizens spend 90-95% of their time indoors, and an increasing amount of our time looking at one screen or another (treat yourself and get outside as soon as you're done reading this) - despite the fact that research shows both of these things have negative effects on our wellbeing. Studies also show that walking through a shopping mall increases stress and lowers self-esteem - which makes me wonder, what does scrolling through an Instagram feed full of similar images do to us? In 2004, the World Health Organization (WHO) showed that rates of mental illness were far higher in the US, where over 85% of citizens live in urban settings, compared to elsewhere in the world. Then, 18% of US citizens suffered from anxiety disorders, and 10% from mood disorders. The WHO also found that the prevalence of anxiety disorders are far worse in developed countries compared to developing countries, and that depression is more common in wealthier countries than in poorer ones. It is no secret that modern life is becoming increasingly stressful, with more and more people reporting anxiety and depression - including a growing percentage of youths. And, perhaps most troubling of all, though our society has provided a robust medical response with increasing amounts of medications being prescribed, the situation only seems to be worsening (Chalquist, Ecotherapy Research and a Psychology of Homecoming, in Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind, 2009)
For many experts within the realm of psychology, the problem that needs to be addressed is obvious: the great divide between our biological needs and the lifestyle we feel stuck in that is a result of our society's constructs. Here is another analogy... For therapists, when a child is brought into therapy by his/her parents because they suffer from anxiety, the therapist knows that an overwhelming majority of the time, the family dynamics in the home is the real problem that needs to be addressed - not the child. Their symptoms are a generally a result of the dysfunctional family environment and lifestyle, and sadly, many parents want their children "fixed" assuming the child has a problem due to psychological illness. But, anxiety disorders are most often a product of the sick environment, as opposed to some biological cause, though a biological propensity towards anxiousness may exist. In the same way, more and more therapists are awakening to the reality that millions of Americans are not defective and in need of "fixing" - it is our society's culture and way of life that has created an environment that is ripe for difficult psychological symptoms to emerge.
What we need then, is to get human beings back into a lifestyle that is more consistent with the biological reality of our species: the need for more rest and play, and less work; the need for community and family time, a natural diet, time in greenspace and in the sunshine. Time with our hands and bare feet in the dirt, growing our own food; going for a swim or run outdoors, hiking up a mountain trail or through the forest. Our species needs to remember and get in touch with the inner animal that we truly are, and to turn away from the mindset that we are machines who can survive indoors, tapping pieces of plastic for a reward like a monkey in a lab. As Jiddu Krishnamurti once said, "It is no measure of health to be well adapted to a profoundly sick society."
How can we respond to such a crisis? Where do we go from here? It seems we have much to learn from our ancient ancestors, and old practices long abandoned.
Thousands of years ago, in ancient Greece, those seeking healing would often make a long journey to an Asclepion Temple, which was located far outside of the city, deep within the heart of nature or on a mountainside. The journey into nature was part of the healing experience itself. There are countless other examples from around the ancient world that closely mirror this Greek example.
In the US, one of the greatest early proponents of the healing potential of nature was John Muir - a man of many talents and abilities - he was a botanist, conservationist, environmentalist, engineer, geologist, writer, philosopher, and naturalist. In 1901, Muir wrote, "The tendency nowadays to wander in wildernesses is delightful to see. Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of the rust and disease. Briskly venturing and roaming, some are washing off the sins and cobwebs cares ... on mountains; sauntering in resiny pinewoods or in gentian meadows, brushing through chaparral, bending down and parting sweet, flowery sprays; tracing rivers to their sources, getting in touch with the nerves of Mother Earth" (Our National Parks).
Through the mid-late 1800's and early 1900's there was a growing trend of people seeking healing in natural settings. Not far from where I sit writing these words, Excelsior Springs, Missouri was a destination for wounded Civil War soldiers to come and soak in natural springs which were rumored to have healing benefits. Countless others wounded in body or soul sought the same benefits in such springs or at other similar healing destinations around the country.
But, as our culture made important scientific advancements, we were perhaps a bit too quick to dismiss the anecdotal evidence in favor of a more rigid academic posture that relied solely on what can be quantified, measured, and proven as valid. But, despite our heavy leanings towards so-called "evidence based treatments," we seem to be losing rather than gaining ground in addressing these issues. The fact led the well known psychotherapist, Jungian Analyst, and philosopher, James Hillman, to write the book, "We've had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy - And the World is Getting Worse."
Psychotherapists are now widely recognizing that healing does not only occur in the therapy room, and that for healing to be possible, we also need to adopt structures and support institutions with the goal of addressing the unhealthy environment that we now find ourselves in. We need strategies that allow humans to be the human-animals we truly are, instead of being forced to live like machines. We need institutions that protect nature and ensure everyone has ample connection to greenspace near their homes. Over the last few decades, a growing body of research is showing the risks associated with not having enough nature in our lives, and the benefits of ensuring we do.
Here are a few examples:
- There is a mountain of research evidence showing the negative effects of being disconnected from nature. Here are some examples of what researchers have found:
Research shows that “less contact with nature, particularly in one’s young years, appears to remove a layer of protection against psychological stress and opportunity for cognitive rejuvenation.” This has life-long impacts.
“Children who have grown up with an accumulation of stressors - major losses, violence, abuse, bullying, institutional care - the amygdalae (which controls the brain’s fear response) are significantly larger, and this is accompanied by a long-term processing bias towards negativity and perceived danger … However, a 2003 investigation involving 337 children showed higher levels of nearby nature diminished the psychological impact of stressful life events.”
“A study of 11,000 adults showed that those living more than a half-mile from greenspace were 42% more likely to report high stress and had the worst scores on evaluations of general health, vitality, mental health, and bodily pain. Those with only 10 percent greenspace within a half-mile had a 25% greater risk of depression and a 30% greater risk of anxiety disorders versus those with greenspace near their home.”
“The risk of anxiety and/or depression for those living in urban environments is up to 40% higher compared to those who live in rural settings.”
Spending time in nature is “associated with higher alpha wave amplitudes … which leads to increased serotonin production;” and there are “findings of lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in subjects after walks in the forest compared to those who took laboratory walks.”
Research shows that in order to truly care about “being green,” one must actually have meaningful exposure to nature, and that those who do not, tend to be less empathetic towards others and towards the environment as a whole.
See “Your Brain on Nature: The Science of Nature’s Influence on Your Health, Happiness, and Vitality,” by Dr. Eva Selhub and Dr. Alan Logan
Fortunately, the research also demonstrates the healing potential of the human-nature relationship. To summarize, spending ample time in direct connection with the Earth is an essential element of one's wellbeing, and for those who suffer from a myriad of challenges, nature-based solutions can have potent benefits.
Research has consistently shown that increased connection with nature results in decreased stress, anxiety, anger, aggression, depression, and a sense of gloom; while it increases a variety of measures of physical health, optimism, self-esteem, vitality, resiliency, and one's ability to overcome obstacles.
Wilderness programs (like those offered by Exploring Roots) are proven to be more effective at promoting self-esteem, behavioral change, and interpersonal skills than traditional programs; while also helping participants to find relief from everyday stressors and rekindle a sense of belonging with the natural world. Participants also demonstrate that many who have these experiences have lifestyle shifts that result in reconnecting with nature as a central need in their lives. Studies conducted on wilderness programs show positive results for stress mitigation and recovery, whereas those conducted in urban settings have the opposite effects.
Some studies have shown that, "green exercise proves as effective as taking antidepressants."
Involvement in conservation activities increases a sense of community, while also bringing healing to the land.
Research shows that bringing nature indoors (house plants or nature sounds, for example) results in increased productivity, improved mood, and decreased boredom. Increased learning and task performance occur in educational settings that are greener. In hospitals or doctors offices, plants contribute to decreased anxiety, shortened recovery times, and decreased usage of painkillers. Breast Cancer patients recover more completely and with less fatigue when they have exposure to green space. Inpatients report less depression and have lower blood pressure when they are exposed to fragrances of fresh fruit.
In the psychotherapeutic setting, nature-guided imagery results in deeper relaxation than imagery without natural elements.
Children from inner city neighborhoods who participate in summer camps have significantly higher self-esteem and describe themselves and their surroundings in a more positive manner as a result.
Children who grow up with green space nearby report being significantly less stressed than children who live in entirely built surroundings.
Horticultural therapy, which began with WWII Veterans, has been shown to help treat stress, obesity, drug and alcohol abuse, trauma, result in increased self-esteem, and have a variety of other benefits
Prisoners who are exposed to videos of nature have fewer incidences of aggression and report better mood.
See "Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind. Edited by Linda Buzzel and Dr. Craig Chalquist, 2009).
In sum, if we want to live healthier, happier lives then we need to create the right conditions for life. An acorn, tomato, or any other seed will not sprout on a tabletop. For life to grow and create new fruit, it must have the right conditions: the right type and amount of soil, sun, and water. We living beings have similar needs for life to sprout from within us, and nature provides those conditions to us. At Exploring Roots, we dedicate ourselves to helping people rediscover their own wildness, creating the conditions for health, and exploring the benefits of having a strong connection to nature.