Posted: 8/15/2023 12:00:30 AM by
Lindsay Cray, MS, MHC-P
Traditional psychology promotes the direct connection between body and mind as the crux of mental health; more easily visualized as a straight line from point A to point B. There is, however, an equally important [and rarely spoken of] third element in this equation; a “point C” which is seldom included but critical to consider - nature.
In simple terms, our bodies feel blissful as they instinctually connect with sunshine and soil. Our minds perceive beauty as they experience the color and complexity of a flower.
So many of us live in a culture that has raised us from birth to believe we are apart from the world in which we live. In doing so, humans have given up our past; Roots withered in the soil – a connection disintegrated with the totem ancestors that dwell in the earth. Instead, we have turned outward, drifted away to the conquering of people and materials of other lands because deep inside, there is an inherent emptiness; human consciousness feels exiled from its soil.
This is an inevitable outcome for such loss, but it does not have to be permanent.
When you consider that humans have been closely bonded with nature for all our existence, the connection to point C seems only logical for mental health. Yet, despite the clarity of reasoning, there remains a denial of how powerful nature can be to our healing. This happens for many reasons; Perhaps we are overwhelmed by this idea or don’t believe in its efficacy? Maybe we are fearful of accepting the detachment we have created in ourselves? Maybe we believe that we are alone in the struggle to reconcile the problems we are noticing in the world?
In whichever way this denial is rationalized, its end result is a condition we all may be suffering from: a state known as eco-anxiety or ecological grief. This is not something one person can fix but rather something that we need to come together and talk about: mind, body and nature. If these feelings or concepts seem somewhat familiar but still foreign, maybe it is a sign that we are waking up to realities that are uncomfortable to face.
As an example, denial of climate change or nature disconnect is a form of self-protection. Think of it in the context of suddenly being diagnosed with an incurable disease and saying to ourselves ‘no, no, that just can’t be.” When we experience troublesome things, we want to push them away. Our default is to disconnect but it doesn’t make the problem go away.
Though, for as much as we are tempted to judge, we must remember that this reaction is not irrational, extreme, or wrong. We are all experiencing a collective reconning. The question is: Will we accept the call and begin the work to change our minds?
Humans are designed to be in nature, but today we are less than 1% like our evolutionary forebearers – now disconnected with other animals and plants. Despite this, we still have a strong desire to seek a deep relationship with the natural world. Let us not forget that the well-being we feel in nature has been hard-wired into our genes through evolution. So, if you are feeling a sense of loss, emptiness, sadness, anxiety, or grief, the most important action you can take is finding someone to talk with and to do this in a natural space.
Integrating nature into our everyday lives and taking steps to address our inner struggles or that of the planet are vital components to treating mental health. This work transforms the core mindset away from feeling stress-driven and problem-focused into a state of balance, resiliency, and empowerment. Not only can we be physically more confident in natural places, but we also begin to see solutions and experience the wider reaching benefits of integrating nature into our therapeutic practices. Restoration follows alignment with a lifestyle that feels more nurturing to our life source – Earth.
If you are not yet convinced, let me bore you with some hard science instead; A 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) showed that 90 minutes of walking in a natural setting decreases rumination and neural activity in the prefrontal cortex - the part of the brain associated with depression and anxiety.1 In 2022 research found in the Journal of American Society for Horticultural Science proved that contact with soil bacteria increases our sense of happiness and vitality, and an a study from January of this year published by CNN Health found that people are 33% less likely to need/use mental health medications if visiting nature 3-4 times/week.2,3
Science highlights the success of this approach but let’s be honest, it is the intentional experiences which deliver the best wisdom. If you are asking yourself ‘Is this even a thing I could do?’ I would offer you a simple answer – yes. Nature-Based Therapy (NBT) is a treatment approach steeped in science, growing internationally and our community proudly serves as home for such a practice. As a widely accepted, clinical model for assisting with stress-related mental illness such as anxiety, depression, and trauma, NBT is formatted to use both dialectical and cognitive behavioral therapies in combination with foundations of mindfulness.
As an NBT professional, I’ve worked in green spaces all over Upstate NY. I teach skills of self-awareness and non-judgement, guiding my clients through points A and B, into “point C” of deep connection. This could look as simple as a walk in a park or a more immersive, sensory experience to get the body in motion and feeling more alive.
The ultimate goal is to reduce stress and increase social, emotional, and physical wellbeing. Sustaining a more positive state of mental health is possible and within our reach. It may just be as simple as accessing connection between all living things to inspire change, evoke healing and open nature’s treasury of wisdom.
*Lindsay is a mental health counselor and Nature-Based Therapy Consultant with Integrating Nature LLC. located in Rochester, NY.
To learn more about her work or schedule a consult visit https://www.integrating-nature.com
1) Bratman, G. N., Hamilton, J. P., Hahn, K. S., Daily, G. C., & Gross, J. J. (2015). Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(28), 8567–8572. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1510459112
2) Kim, S.-O., Son, S. Y., Kim, M. J., Lee, C. H., & Park, S.-A. (2022). Physiological Responses of Adults during Soil-mixing Activities Based on the Presence of Soil Microorganisms: A Metabolomics Approach. Journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science, 147(3), 135–144. https://doi.org/10.21273/JASHS05146-21
3) LaMotte, S. (2023, January 16). Enjoying nature may lessen need for some medications, study finds. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2023/01/16/health/nature-mental-health-study-wellness/index.html#:~:text=The%20study%20found%20visiting%20nature