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An excerpt from Mindful Choices for Well-Being, Chapter 14,

Mindfulness Practices Toolkit




“It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air, that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.” — Robert Louis Stevenson 

Ecotherapy refers to relatively inexpensive nature centered healing approaches supported by a growing body of research. As a new form of psychotherapy, ecotherapy maintains that people are designed to be intimately connected with nature and can greatly benefit from nature-reconnection practices. Mainstream therapy on the other hand, largely ignores the fact that the way we are living may be making us sick. Most of us live in a fast-paced, highly stressful artificial world[WS1] feeling disconnected from our surroundings, failing to bond deeply with others, the animal world, plants, and the planet. According to Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist, editors of Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind:

“We can survive without this bonding, but we often feel a great emptiness, which we attempt to fill in a variety of unhealthy ways. Like caged zoo animals, we become anxious, nervous and depressed in restrictive, artificial habitats. It should come as no surprise that rates of mental illness, substance addiction, and destructive behaviors soar in such circumstances.”

Depression and anxiety stem largely from being hyper-focused on your own worries, along with totally and uncritically embracing self-critical and overly negative thoughts. A basic ingredient is compulsively ruminating on your own worries. The antidote for this inner turmoil, or rumination, is a sense of “awe.” Inner turmoil tends to dissipate when you experience something far larger than yourself. It’s hard to hold onto your personal worries when gazing upward at a towering redwood that’s been around for more than 1000 years. It turns out that being “awestruck” is good for you.

Bill has always intuitively embraced the healing power of nature. Here Bill recounts the origins of his lifelong love affair with the natural world:

Long before I knew it had a name, ecotherapy, or therapeutic contact with nature, was getting me through some very rough times. 

I grew up in New Jersey and my home life was unrelentingly contentious and unstable, often terrifying. My father was an alcoholic and prone to drunken rages almost nightly. Much of his anger was directed toward me, perhaps because he had never recovered from the loss of my oldest brother, a casualty of war. Although I didn’t understand clearly what was going on, my extreme distress was manifested by years of poor or failing grades, aggressive behavior, poor impulse control, and a propensity to almost always be in trouble. I was on autopilot, acting out my distress in a self-destructive manner, largely unconscious and totally lacking in insight.

What saved me was a large expanse of woods by my home, and beyond the woods there was a beach that was cold, windswept and deserted for most of the year. The natural world was a magnet. It was my most important classroom, and I became a passionate student. I awakened to something far bigger than the jumble of fear and rage propelling me to endlessly create and amplify my own difficulties.

Somehow I got my hands on used biology books which I virtually memorized, feeding my fascination for plants and animals. I studied birds, and I cultivated exotic plants like algae and lichens. It was a strange time of feeling alienated from virtually everything and everyone – except for a profound sense of connectedness to nature. 

I would leave my home angry and upset, go walking aimlessly through the woods and reach a point where a deep sense of well-being would overtake me. I would lose myself amongst trees, fields, brooks, or cold and blustery beaches. Animals of all kind, birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, fish and other sea creatures fascinated me. I felt overwhelmed by awe and wonder. I craved these times as a small child craves his mother. It was a strange sense of coming home to myself. The inner storm was calmed. The incessant rage and confused self- talk gave way to stillness and an awakening.

Of course, sooner or later I had to go home, and the madness would be rekindled. However, I always knew I could recover my balance and once again find an inner peace. Once again I could awaken to myself and a deep sense of well-being. It was healing and nurturing. For perhaps the first time in my life, I felt connected rather than alone and alienated. It was transformational. I truly believe it saved me.

Years later I would spend days at a time backpacking in the mountains, rediscovering the feelings I had growing up, the love of nature, and the sense that this was what I needed, what I had to have, what I could never be without. My favorite pastimes reflect this heartfelt connection.  Birdwatching, wildlife art and wildlife photography provide me with endless joy, and yes, I still experience awe and wonder.

When I became a therapist, I frequently took a number of troubled 10 and 11-year-olds off camping in the mountains. Group therapy in the wild! It was a natural. The kids loved it and I loved combining my work with my love of nature.

These days I’m working with trauma victims such as military veterans with PTSD. Again, immersion in nature is immensely therapeutic, and it’s not surprising. For all of human history, until recently, we humans have been part of nature. It’s only in our recent past that we’ve been separated, spending almost all of our time shut off from our natural surroundings. Lately however, we seem to be rediscovering the power of natural spaces to give us a sense of safety and belonging, a sense of comfort not easily found in man-made spaces accompanied by a myriad of electronic devices. The way we live is often in itself stressful and we therapists often find ourselves trying to promote healing within the context of lifestyles that are disconnected from the natural world and therefore out of balance. As therapists we might better serve our clients by getting them to go outside, and to go outside again and again.

Throughout history and across all cultures, poets and philosophers have promoted communion with nature. Now science is weighing in on the questions of how much is contact with nature essential to well-being, and to what extent does disconnection from the natural world work against us. Authors  Eva M. Selhub, M.D. and Alan C Logan, N.D., in their excellent book Your Brain on Nature: The Science of Nature’s Influence on Your Health, Happiness and Vitality state:

“As neuroscience develops at a rapid pace, researchers are uncovering functional aspects of the intricate anatomy and physiology of the human brain, allowing them to have a clearer picture of the true depths to which environmental factors influence cognitive and mental health. So far, the results suggest that we have completely underestimated the way in which the human brain is influenced by its physical environment and, in particular, by the elements of the natural world of water, vegetation, and animals.”

There are many ways to reconnect with nature such as walking through a forest or park, gardening or keeping container plants in your office, outdoor exercise, pets, excursions to wild places, and mindfully eating a whole food, plant-based diet. The research showing highly beneficial emotional, cognitive, and physiological benefits is overwhelming, as is the evidence showing the detrimental effects of nature deprivation on mental health, stress, emotions, cognition and the immune system.

Out of touch with nature? Need an antidote for negative thinking? Getting outside might be more beneficial to your health and well-being than either indoor therapy or psychotropic meds. How about giving yourself a regular prescription of feeling awe, seeing beauty, experiencing wonder, having a sense of interconnectedness with your environment, and losing yourself while gaining perspective on your connection to your world?




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