“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.” Crowfoot (Blackfoot)
The thirteenth principle of health is being in and connecting with nature and wilderness. We are experiencing what Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods called, “nature-deficit disorder” (1). As a teacher, I am constantly bombarded with stories from my students about how their after school and weekend activities are tv and video games. I was even more horrified recently when talking about very common birds, more specifically the egret and ibis, in our local lowcountry archipelago of South Carolina to find that only one student in my entire class could recall ever hearing about either of these birds. Only about an ⅛ of them had a general idea of how to build a play fort from objects in nature. This is only in my small world, and involves only one classroom of children. However, Louv’s coined nature-deficit disorder is an epidemic. Humans do not experience nature nearly enough as their psychological, physiological, emotional, and spiritual health demands.
In a society where humans – adults and children alike – are spending most of their lives inside and seem to be more reliant and addicted to technology, it’s no wonder we are needing constant stimulation, are being diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety, depression and other disorders, are becoming allergic to everything including “air” (a comment I’ve heard on numerous occasions), and are losing our sense of selves and connection to our true birthplace: Earth.
“But love of the wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home which we will ever know, the only paradise we ever need – if only we had eyes to see.” (Edward Abbey).
Most humans live more in cities and urban areas, away from natural greenscapes and wildlife (2). Studies over the years have shown that people who live in urban areas and spend less time outside, have higher incidence of psychological problems such as anxiety and depression, than people who live near parks and natural environments (2). These same studies show that city dwellers who spend more time outside, even if for a short nature walk or a stroll in a lush park, were more attentive, happier, and had lower levels of stress hormones (2).
The simple saying, “walk it off,” speaks the truth but is not utilized the way it’s intended. With all of the evidence-based research being implemented throughout the world on the healing aspects of being in nature, one would think that we would use this form of therapy and medicine more often. It could lead to better cardiovascular health, reduced stress, improved mood and self-esteem, healthy weight, strengthened bones, and boosts in creative thinking (3). Ecopsychology, a science dedicated to the study of the healing aspects of connecting with nature and wilderness, shows the interrelatedness of mental and physiological health and the need for being “exposed to nature” (3). Dr. John Davis of Naropa University – The School of Lost Borders, emphasizes that Ecopsychology’s central themes is that humans and nature are part of a larger whole, and that the illusion of separation of humans from nature causes great suffering in both (4). This field of study holds that an intimate relationship with the natural world is essential for optimal mental health (4).
Results of a study published in the journal Ecopsychology, showed groups of individuals revealing significantly higher motivation and feelings of meaning within two short weeks of taking daily breaks in nature close to their homes (5). Another study in the same journal and from the University of Michigan mentioned that you don’t have to see nature on your own to experience psychological and physiological improvements (6, 7). A study done on group nature walks in England with nearly 70,000 people per year showed participants’ moods were significantly elevated after the group nature walks (7). People who had just experienced traumatic events such as a death of a loved one, a serious illness, marital issues, or job loss especially saw mood boosts after group nature walks (6). “Group nature walks are linked with significantly lower depression, less perceived stress, and enhanced mental health and well-being,” says Marselle, et al. in their study published in Ecopsychology (6). The intended purpose is to facilitate interaction with nature, social interaction, and physical activity (6).
Interaction with nature is one of the key elements here. One fascinating study on how walking in nature affects the blood flow and outcome of the subgenual prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain showing abnormalities in mood), assigned half of the volunteers to walk for 90 minutes through a leafy, quiet area. The other half were assigned to walk alongside a loud, hectic multi-lane highway. Both halves were not allowed any music or companions. They were allowed to walk at their own pace. Before the walk, the researchers scanned the subgenual cortices and had each person fill out a mental health questionnaire. After the walk, their subgenual cortices were re-examined and, as expected, the highway walkers still had high blood flow to this brain region showing unchanged scores of moodiness. The nature walkers, on the other hand, showed meaningful shifts in their mental health, and they were not dwelling on the negative aspects of their lives as they had been before the walk. The blood flow to the subgenual cortex had much less blood flow, and it was quieter (2). Jogging outdoors, another study found, makes people 50% happier than working out in a gym (3). Whether running through a canyon, walking on the beach, hiking through a fern-filled forest, throwing pebbles along a creek side, or watching the setting sun, being out in nature is one of the best prescriptions for overall health and encouraging healing (8).
Some scientists believe that it is a way of connecting our life circumstances and issues to the cyclical nature of Earth. Nature group walks for example, “appear to mitigate the effects of stressful life events on perceived stress and negative affect while synergizing with physical activity to improve positive affect and mental well-being” (3). It would seem true, since in fact we did come from Earth itself.
Lynn Margulis, one of the most successful synthetic thinkers of modern biology, once quoted that since all living things are bathed in the same waters and atmosphere, all the inhabitants of the Earth belong to a symbiotic planet (9). “Being in nature, one becomes aware of the infinite circles of life,” says Dr. Kirsti Dyer in her research essay dedicated to the therapeutic modalities of nature awareness (8). She explains what many of us may intuitively feel that when we explore the great outdoors, “There is evidence of decay, destruction and death; there are also examples of rejuvenation, restoration, and renewal. The never-ending cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth can put life and death into perspective and impart a sense of constancy after experiencing a life changing loss or death” (8).
When looking more deeply, many believe the boost in health and well-being come from that connectedness of our primal roots, whether we realize it or not. “There’s no better way to feel the power of the elements, and our own power than by experiencing oneness with nature,” explains Lyn Roberts and Robert Levy in their book Shamanic Reiki: Expanded Ways of Working with Universal Life Force Energy (10). In this sense, it is common knowledge that ancient peoples knew and tapped into the energies of the mythological reality that paralleled the physical reality for healing, guidance, and sustenance (10).
Australian aborigines go on walkabout, Thai monks conduct prayer walks through the jungle, Native Americans fast on vision quests, and the ancient Celts walked the hills, staff in hand. Around the world… all found guidance, healing, inspiration, and connection with spirit on their walks (Dr. John Davis). These people know that living in balance with and being awed by the beauty of the streams, trees, breezes, stars, etc promote a sense of connectedness, healing, and encouragement. Attuning to nature, we are shown how life can be and that it does become more dynamic and intimate. Experiencing this connection heals our bodies on all levels: physiologically, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and expands our consciousness in terms of giving us fresh ways to look at our world and ourselves (10).
“But if a man could be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds will separate between him and vulgar things.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Nature can no doubt become a place of refuge for difficult times. When life circumstances start to close in, one can physically and mentally escape to wilderness. Being in nature helps to refresh our clogged emotions and clear our thoughts of daily demands and stresses. With this in mind, studies show that being in nature may put the brain in a meditative state (3). This helps to clear the mind to allow fresh thoughts and the ability to find answers to life’s questions (8).
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter” (Rachel Carson, Silent Spring).
1. Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods. Algonquin Publishing of Chapel Hill, 2008.
2. Reynolds, Gretchen. Walking in Nature Changes the Brain. NY Times, July 22, 2015. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/07/22/how-nature-changes-the-brain/?_r=0
3. Gregoire, Carolyn, Taking a Walk in Nature Could Be the Best Thing You Do For Your Mood All Day, Huffington Post, September 9, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/23/walk-nature-depression_n_5870134.html
4. Davis, John, PhD. The Medicine Walk: An Exploration of Ecopsychology and the Rites of Passage, Naropa University. http://www.schooloflostborders.org/content/medicine-walk-exploration-ecopsychology-and-rites-passage-john-davis
5. Passmore Holli-Anne and Howell Andrew J.. Ecopsychology. September 2014, 6(3): 148-154. doi:10.1089/eco.2014.0023.
6. “Examining group walks in nature and multiple aspects of well-being: A large scale study,” Ecopsychology, DOI: 10.1089/eco.2014.0027.
7. Walking off depression and beating stress outdoors? Nature group walks linked to improved mental health, University of Michigan Health Systems, September 23, 2014. http://www.uofmhealth.org/news/archive/201409/walking-depression-and-beating-stress-outdoors-nature-group.
8. Dyer, Kirstie A., MD, MS, FAAETS, Nature Awareness as a Therapeutic Modality: Part 1: The Healing Qualities of Nature. http://journeyofhearts.org/healing/nature.html
9. Margulis, Lynn, The Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution, Science Masters, 1998.
10. Roberts, Lyn; Levy, Robert, Shamanic Reiki: Expanded Ways of Working With Universal Life Force Energy, O Books, 2008.