This week has been a struggle coming up with new subject matter. Partly because I’ve been in a shitty mood and came down with a case of shingles. It’s been a rough week attempting to reconcile life after a graduate degree, the new career path, and day dreaming about what I’d rather be doing with my life (see the blog Gypsy Dreams). I’ve decided today’s content will discuss addressing mental illness through nature.
According to Mental Health America, 1 in 5 people suffer from mental illness while 56% have not received any form of treatment. While I’m a therapist, I certainly don’t consider myself an expert on mental illness, but this is obviously an epidemic! Therefore, I will only speak through my own experiences and education via my areas of interest.
While individuals require differing modalities, varying lengths and intensity of treatment, there are 5 greatly overlooked, straightforward changes that can improve mental health: sleep, nutrition, exercise, time outside in nature, and living simply. I’m not suggesting that “straightforward” means easy to implement. With depression and anxiety, sleep, nutrition, and exercise can be a challenge. With an eating disorder, nutrition and exercise can be problematic. With complex trauma, bipolar disorder, and OCD, simplifying and sleep can be difficult. Spending time outside in nature is the easiest activity to undertake (if you live in a large city you could join or start a community garden). And, in many instances, reintegrating the natural world on a consistent basis may help with implementing the other 4 items.
Research continues to discover that human interactions with natural world comes with several mental and physical health benefits. Nature requires engagement of all the senses naturally enhancing mindfulness. Being present eases anxiety and encourages simplicity. Ruminations are reduced, the mind becomes languid and clear. Nature supports peaceful sleep especially when paired with physical activity. There has been recent buzz around the discovery of certain microbes in the soil (Mycobacterium vaccea). These microbes may stimulate serotonin production much like antidepressants but without the side effects. Likewise, plants and trees emit phytoncides, a compound which protects them from insects and diseases. Breathing these phytoncides have been found to enhance human physical and mental health. Clearly, the natural world’s positive influence on human health and well-being should not be discounted.
Because this is my blog and I can make whatever assertions I want, I can’t resist the urge to digress. I would go as far as to say that ecocide influences and correlates with the rise of human pathology. David Abram (2010) expresses in Becoming Animal; An Earthly Cosmology:
This sitting on chairs is a strange new thing for the primate body-holding our hindquarters away from the ground, our flexible spine suspended in air. Civilized, to be sure. Yet how much more nourishment our spines once drew from their oft-renewed friendship with the ground-planting themselves there, like trees, as we prepared our foods and whittled our implements, squatting on our haunches as we wove patterns into bright cloth and chatted with kin. But now we scorn the ground. Gravity, we think, is a drag upon our aspirations: it pulls us down, holds us back, makes life a weight and a burden.
What I, and many other, ecopsychologisty types are declaring, is that humans coevolved with nature for an extremely long time and now we live separated and detached from ourselves, each other, and our environment. Our ancestors began evolving approximately 6 million years ago. Modern humans have been around for about 200,000 years. In contrast, civilization is only 6,000-years-old, and the 1800’s saw the rise of industrialization and the subsequent destruction and commodification of life. Ecological damage and mental and emotional pathology is the price we pay for our little jaunt into becoming “civilized.” Our senses, brain, physicality, and spirituality coevolved along with other plants, animals, dirt, microbes, sky, clouds, and weather phenomenon. Coevolution, as simply stated, is the awareness that species influence each other’s evolution.
The natural world is filled to the brim with coevolution; the under-your-nose evidence of total interconnectedness. Our ears, nose, skin, eyes, tongue, down to every mitochondrion coevolved with the earth for millions of years and not with chairs, cubicles, cement, hard edges, artificial light, skyscrapers and Walmart. So duh, of course we’re a total fucking mess and of course time in nature alleviates a lot of our woes; we’re engaging with the environment that gave birth to us, not the absurd environment which we gave birth to. So, get outside, better yet get active outside, and even better yet, cut back on having so many kids so future kids will have a place to be well. But, if you have kids now, have an adventure in nature together (the other component in all of this is relationship, we also coevolved with each other). Try make a damn mud pie, lick a slug, plant a garden, climb a mountain so you can experience the minuteness of your problems. Forest or cement? Ocean beach or plastic? Lakes and rivers or fracking and pipelines? Which will ease afflictions and create smiles and eye crinkles? Dirt, sun, plants, animals, sky and clouds. I leave you with this anecdotal statement, the natural world saved my life by saving my mind and my spirit.