Depressed people often need someone to hug. On occasion, that someone may just be a tree.
A new and growing group of psychologists believes that many of our modern-day mental problems, including depression, stress and anxiety, can be traced in part to society’s increasing alienation from nature.
Richard Louv coined the phrase Nature Deficit Disorder when speaking about increasing problems with children and wrote the book “Last Child in the Woods”
The solution as I see it? Get outside and enjoy nature. But it’s not as easy as you think… we’ve actually forgotten how to connect with nature.
A few years back I wrote the book Sacred Love and described going for a walk through nature with a friend. During the walk he talked about the stock market, his sore knee, a property he was buying and the state of the nation. At the end of the walk I asked if we could do the whole thing again, my way. On that walk I simply showed my friend how to use what our not too distant past relatives would have done naturally. Being outdoors is, in itself, not enough.
While traditional psychotherapists focus their treatments on the patient’s interior — whether through pharmaceuticals like Prozac, mindfulness practices like meditation, or old-fashioned couch-bound therapy by the hour — I believe that patient care must include time spent in the great outdoors. “It’s psychotherapy — as if nature really mattered,” says Linda Buzzell-Saltzman, a psychologist and the founder of the International Association for Ecotherapy.
Human beings have evolved in synchrony with nature for millions of years and we are hard-wired to interact with our environment — with the air, water, plants, other animals. But in the past two centuries, beginning with the Industrial Revolution, people have been steadily removed from the natural world, our lives regulated not by the sun or moon but instead by the factory clock. Recently it’s gotten worse, with the rise of the Internet and other technologies, like iPhones and BlackBerrys, that dominate our lives, pushing us even further from any appreciation of our natural surroundings.
“We began to get the impression that we were somehow above and separate from nature,” says Craig Chalquist, an instructor at John F. Kennedy University in San Francisco and co-editor with Buzzell-Saltzman of the new book Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind.
Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and many people barely ever get a glimpse of green. At the same time, human beings appear to be doing their best to destroy what remains of the earth by contributing to climate change — a problem that in itself causes some people deep anxiety. But what the average person feels as stress or depression, eco-therapists suggest, is a longing for our natural home. “People were embedded in nature once,” says Buzzell-Saltzman. “We’ve lost that, and we’re paying the price.”
Getting it back doesn’t have to be difficult.
Begin with starting a nature journal, in which you record how much time you spend outside. The results can often be shocking.
“Some of my clients find they spend less than 15 to 30 minutes a day outside, other than walking to and from their cars,” I suggest that two hours a day is essential in a business life. Time for exercise, time to slow down, time to reconnect with nature simply by hiking, gardening or taking walks outdoors.
All of my business consulting sessions and personal consulting sessions take place outdoors — in a park or by the beach down here at Bondi. I even do my phone consultations while walking on the beach — rather than inside yet another office.
“We can use the natural world to be part of the healing process, and as a vital part of business leadership, team building and company culture. We have to acknowledge that we’re part of this, not the master of it.”
If such prescriptions sound a little simplistic, consider this: A 2007 study by researchers at the University of Essex in England found that a daily dose of walking outside could be as effective as taking antidepressant drugs for treating mild to moderate depression. Of course, it’s no secret that regular exercise is a powerful mood enhancer — although researchers noted that a similar regimen of walking in a crowded shopping mall did not have the same impact — and the boost in vitamin D production in people who spent more time outside in the sun surely helped as well.
It may be that using nature as a crucial part of healing is less a practical psychological treatment than a timely philosophy that connects common feelings of isolation and stress with the fact that the world in which we live is slowly becoming something it shouldn’t be. And with worsening climate change and a relentless drumbeat of bad news about our endangered environment, it seems our eco-anxiety may be a symptom of self preservation as much as it is a concern for the future of planet.
“Ultimately, what we need to do is change human behaviour – to reconnect leaders, families, lovers, children, patients, life coaches, hospitals and office workers to nature. It’s a commonsense recommendation for humans as well as the environment.
THINK INSPIRED – LIVE INSPIRED