By Melissa Riddle Chalos
The more advanced our society becomes — the more we become enslaved to our devices — the less time we spend absorbing the fresh air, sunlight and everything else nature has to offer. In the 18th and 19th centuries, physicians seemed to understand these natural elements as essential to health and well-being. They often prescribed “fresh sea air” or that patients take walks in nature as a way of rebalancing both physical and mental health. But with the evolution of modern medicine, nature’s healing powers were downplayed, at least on paper, in preference to pharmaceutical aids and other medical therapies.
Florence Williams, in her book The Nature Fix, writes that we suffer from an “epidemic dislocation from the outdoors.” Simply stated, she says, “The more nature, the better you feel.”1 And yet, studies show that Americans spend less time outdoors than they do inside their vehicles — less than five percent of their day. 2
At its basic best, natural sunlight provides the body with essential Vitamin D, but time spent mindfully in nature provides a cornucopia of lesser known health benefits:
- Natural sunlight rebalances melatonin levels.
- Nature provides negative ions that boost your immune system, relax your body and improve your mood.
- Exposure to green plants improves energy and mental concentration and can actually decrease pain.3
And yet these are only the beginning of nature’s healing powers.
The healing capacity of nature cannot be underestimated. Scientific study after study backs up the premise that much of what ails our bodies and minds can be improved, if not substantially healed, by getting back to nature.
For the Lobe and Love of Nature
“Imagine a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost,” environmental psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan at the University of Michigan wrote after recording the results of a 50-minute walk through an arboretum. “It exists … and it’s called ‘interacting with nature.’”2
According to David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah, who studies cognition and nature, “Going into nature changes how your brain works; it reduces stress levels and boosts measures of well-being. … When you’re enjoying nature, you can rest the prefrontal cortex. You’re more in the moment rather than ruminating about your problems. The parts of the brain associated with being mindful and in a meditative state become more active.”4
Because today’s medical technology is more portable, neuroscientists can take devices like EEG units, capable of measuring brain waves, out into the field with their subjects to record real-time results. They can measure how people’s brains respond to different environments. And what are they finding? That the brains of volunteers walking in cities or noisy areas are doing different things than if they are walking in a park. “The frontal lobe, the part of our brain that’s hyper-engaged in modern life, deactivates a little when you are outside. Alpha waves, which indicate a calm but alert state, grow stronger.”5
Getting out in nature, disconnecting from the pressures of the concrete, digitized jungle can completely change the outlook of a person in addiction recovery. “There is a healing power in nature that cannot be measured nor explained, yet it is very real,” says Ray Barlow, Co-founder/Program Director of Legacy Outdoors Adventures, a wilderness program based in Loa, Utah. “Time in the wilderness seems to have a healing effect on even the deepest wounds. It is no coincidence that most of the spiritual leaders and teachers throughout time have gone to the wilderness to find healing and purpose in preparation for their life’s work. One of the gifts of the wilderness is the way it gives us an honest look at ourselves, our gifts, talents, weaknesses, character defects and our true potential are all made obvious. It is this honest look at ourselves that allows us to find love and acceptance for who we are and a vision of who we can become.”6
Sounds like something right out of the recovery guide, doesn’t it?
When people in recovery experience themselves in the context of nature, they begin to believe they can be successful, they can overcome, despite the obstacles they face. “Simply put,” Barlow says, “the experience helps them to recapture hope in their lives.”6
The Sky’s the Limit
The therapeutic benefits of nature are seemingly endless — with many researchers suggesting a mere 30 minutes of unplugged immersion in green spaces can increase mental health and well-being. It’s no wonder more and more options and opportunities for nature breaks are emerging. From forest therapy to surf therapy to adventure therapy and beyond, there’s never been a better time to get back to nature for the sake of your health.
Inspired by the 1980s Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing,” forest therapy is a great option for people seeking to de-stress, unplug and reconnect with the rhythm nature intended. Essentially, forest therapy is walking through the woods, intentionally connecting with nature through the senses. Neither exercise nor hiking, these guided walks are relaxing and beneficial for people of all fitness levels and lifestyles. “Even in a three-hour walk, we see a reset of the nervous system, where people start coming back to a healthier baseline,” says Amos Clifford, the founder of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs. “They’re away from their devices, they’re not in traffic, they’re not watching the 24-hour news cycle. They’re very much in the present moment. … The body, in those circumstances, has this incredible capacity for healing itself.”7
Another back-to-nature activity that positions the mind and body for greater healing is surf therapy. Surfer and award-winning documentary filmmaker Josh Izenberg is well known for exploring the power of surf therapy to alleviate symptoms of PTSD in active and retired military personnel. In an interview with Izenberg in conjunction with the release of his 2015 documentary Resurface, Psychology Today lays out five reasons why surf therapy can be therapeutic:
- “The ocean itself has a cathartic ability to wash away negative emotions by putting surfers in the context of something much bigger and more powerful than individual life experience,” Psychology Today
- “Learning to surf forces [the learner] into a flow channel” — or “the zone” — where the stress and trauma of daily life dissolves.
- Surfing requires a “singularity of focus that forces you to focus on the task at hand and stay in the present tense.”
- It also provides an adrenaline rush similar to what many veterans grow accustomed to in combat but rarely experience in civilian life.
- And finally, the physical exertion and exhaustion at the end of a day of surfing dramatically decreases insomnia, which is all too common in PTSD sufferers. “Surfing is an excellent, drug-free sleep aid.”8
Whether struggling with PTSD, addiction or other co-occurring mental disorders, there is so much to be gained — so much progress to be made — by moving outdoors, beyond traditional talk therapy. “Research has shown that spending time in nature has been associated with decreased levels of mental illness,” says Dr. Susanne Preston, a Clinical Mental Health Counseling instructor at South University in Virginia Beach, “with the strongest links to reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, in addition to increased self-esteem.”9
Adventure therapies, like those offered here in Black Bear Lodge’s restorative forest location, not only support physical rehabilitation and self-care, but also provide team-building and self-discovery critical for lasting recovery beyond inpatient treatment. Surrounded by beautiful hiking trails, natural water resources and scenic views, Black Bear Lodge offers patients the opportunity to participate in weekly equine therapy, zip-lining, hiking on Mt. Yonah and monthly horseback riding, among other natural therapies.
Five Ways to Get More Vitamin N (aka Nature)
So whether you’re dealing with a mental health or addiction issue or whether you’re simply trying to de-stress and find a little recovery from the stressful situations in your life, what are some practical ways you can take advantage of the healing benefits of nature in your life? It’s not as difficult as you think.
Here are five ways you can incorporate more “Vitamin N” into your life:
- Carve out 20 minutes in your day to spend out in nature. Whether it’s a walk in the park or gardening, sitting on the beach, fishing, leaf-collecting, hiking or meditating, be intentional. Breathe deeply. Pay attention to the smells, sounds and textures you encounter. Take time to observe the beauty and tranquility of your surroundings, and soak in all the natural sunlight you can.
- Even if you live in an urban area, bring the green home with potted plants, a small herb garden or window box. Studies show plants can improve concentration and energy and decrease pain. The act of feeding, watering and caring for plants can be therapeutic as well.
- Incorporate more nature into your diet. Shop the outer perimeters of your grocery store, and purchase in-season vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and lean, hormone-free proteins. According to MindBodyGreen, “… if it doesn’t come from the earth, you body will not react well to it.”3
- Relocate your fitness routine from the gym to the nearest green spaceor use your lunch break as a nature break, silencing your phone and finding a quiet spot to disengage from the job.
- If a little bit of nature is helpful, more nature is even more helpful. Take one weekend day a month to explore a nature preserve, national parks and wilderness spaces. Take a friend or family member, or branch out and explore nature with nature-minded groups. Exploration in nature improves our sense of independence, problem-solving skills and social bonding and creates memories that last a lifetime.5
After all, what we give our attention to determines where our focus is, and our focus dramatically impacts the quality of the life we choose — in recovery and beyond.
1 Mark, Jason. “Get Out of Here: Scientists Examine the Benefits of Forests, Birdsong and Running Water.” The New York Times, March 2, 2017, Accessed August 22, 2017.
2 Williams, Florence. “This Is Your Brain on Nature.” National Geographic, January 2016, Accessed August 15, 2017.
3 Selhub, Eva. “A Doctor Explains How To Take Advantage of the Healing Powers of Nature.” MindBodyGreen, May 5, 2017, Accessed August 15, 2017.
4 Pawlowski, A. “Feeling Brain Fatigued? Recharge Your Mind and Body with Forest Therapy.” The Today Show, December 8, 2016, Accessed August 15, 2017.
5 Worrell, Simon. “We Are Wired To Be Outside.” National Geographic, February 12, 2017, Accessed August 15, 2017.
6 Benton, Sarah A. “Nature and Recovery.” Psychology Today, October 16, 2012, Accessed August 15, 2017.
7 Pawloski, A. “Forest therapy guide explains the healing power of a walk in the woods.” The Today Show, August 1, 2016, Accessed August 22, 2017.
8 Bergland, Christopher. “Surf Therapy” and Being in the Ocean Can Alleviate PTSD.” Psychology Today, May 28, 2015, Accessed August 15, 2017.
9 Newnam, Jared. “Spending Time in Nature for Your Health: How Outdoor Activities Improve Wellbeing.” South University, September 6, 2012. Accessed August 15, 2017.