Words of Wellness: outdoor therapy, nature’s cure

Recent studies show that being outside has both positive psychological and physiological benefits. Ecotherapy (also known as green therapy, nature therapy, and earth-centered therapy) is contact with nature and is a powerful new kind of therapy. It has been found to be just as effective against depression as traditional psychotherapy or medication, and the amazing thing about ecotherapy is that it is free! Not only is it free, but it is completely accessible to anyone at any time.

Our ancestors recognized the benefits of nature as they spent the vast majority of their time outside; only recently have humans begun to spend more time inside than outside. Growing up, I remember playing outside every evening, after dinner until bedtime; now it is more common for kids to be inside on their handheld devices, than outside playing. Think about the last time you spent a few quiet moments outside. Did you experience the calming and mind-quieting effect that nature can have? Did you feel like you could put your fast-paced life on pause, and take deeper breaths? We often overlook the natural health benefits available to us, for free, just outside our doors. My evening walks do wonders for clearing my head, lowering my stress, and helping me get in my daily step count!

Many have documented the benefits of spending time in nature. Henry David Thoreau (best known for his book, Walden) wrote of the therapeutic effects of nature by saying, “I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright” Prominent writers, poets, and philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir, Charles Darwin, and Frank Lloyd Wright have also written that nature has played an integral role in their quest for happiness and personal fulfillment. Said Frank Lloyd Wright, “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”

A few years ago, researchers at the University of Essex found that 90 percent, of those suffering from depression in the study, felt a higher level of self-esteem after a walk through a country park, and almost three-quarters felt less depressed. Another survey, by the same research team, found that 94% of people with mental illnesses believed that contact with nature put them in a more positive mood. Nature has a natural healing effective that we need to tap into more.

Through his time spent enjoying mother nature, Stacy Bare was able to overcome alcoholism, a cocaine habit, and suicidal thoughts. He turned his life around; he is now the director of Sierra Club Outdoors and a large advocate that adventure therapy be on par with pharmaceutical treatments. He says that physician-recommended outdoor recreation would be a cheaper, safer alternative to prescription drugs and would result in less dependence on medications and lower health care costs. In 2013, Bare partnered with Dacher Keltner, a psychologist from Berkeley, to organize rafting trips for veterans. Their findings are striking–35% experience a decrease of PTSD symptoms after a single two-day rafting trip. They summarized, “We have pharmaceutical solutions for health problems that can be solved by the great outdoors.” One vet, in the study, took up kayaking and reduced the amount spent on his meds from $25,000 per year to $5,000!

Although these findings certainly seem indicative of improved mental health and decreased cost of government funding, there is still work to be done before a healthy dose of nature can be an actual prescription. “If we could package the outdoors and call it a pharmaceutical, it would be sold widely.”

Bare is certain continued research can usher in the day when we can get a prescription to cover the cost of guides, specific gear for outdoor recreation, a rafting trip, or new hiking boots. He says, “No one questions using sick time to go to the therapist. If you end up healthier and more productive by taking a powder day, it just makes sense. Xanax isn’t seen as an extravagance, and time outdoors shouldn’t be either.”

I know that it is not easy to make time to take care of ourselves–to put down our paperwork or housework and turn off our computer– and to get outside. We have many obligations and responsibilities that demand our attention, and taking the time for self-care seems like one more thing to fit into our schedules.  Getting outside can be as simple as gardening, bird watching, taking a stroll around your neighborhood, swinging or having a picnic at the park, paddle boarding, jogging, viewing the sunrise/sunset, taking a leisurely ride on a bicycle, and a host of other activities. We must identify what is keeping us from taking care of our bodies and minds and make the necessary changes. Literally schedule time for yourself!