I Need a Nature Prescription
by Sarah Shaffer
For those of us who have a passion for being outdoors, we value what nature gives us. For me that is a sense of calm, solace, happiness, adventure, joy, and the feeling that there is something bigger at work out there. Many of my most memorable moments are a result of being outside, playing in nature.
An article called The Nature Cure published this month in The Atlantic discusses why some doctors are writing prescriptions for time outdoors. “If you hold moist soil for 20 minutes, the soil bacteria begin elevating your mood.” Ecotherapist Craig Chalquist notes. He was referring to a study published in Neuroscience that found that Mycobacterium Vaccae increased serotonin in the brains of mice, much like Prozac and similar medications. So the outdoors may play a role in changing our hormone levels … and that may lead to an elevated mood?
Interesting. But let’s back up a moment to the term ‘Ecotherapist.’ That’s a new one and the article defines this as a practitioner who uses nature-based exercises and therapies intended to address both mental and physical health. Currently this is a fledgling profession unrestrained by such things as “standards of practice” and “licensing requirements.” And the treatments such practitioners may prescribe can be regular outdoor sessions with a therapist or simple exercises undertaken on one’s own to improve health.
According to The Nature Cure research does support the notion that spending time in nature makes people healthier. Children with ADHD who regularly play in parks have been found to have milder symptoms than those who spend more time indoors. Meanwhile, therapeutic-camping programs (Wilderness Therapy) have been found to decrease relapse rates among addicts with substance-abuse problems.
When I was in college I decided to write my master’s thesis on the benefits of Wilderness Therapy programs — anecdotally I had observed that the outdoors was a remedy for emotional and behavioral maladies.
My most exciting experience while writing that thesis was when I joined the owner of a wilderness therapy program at a remote location where ‘troubled’ teenagers were enrolled in his wilderness therapy program. Counselors worked with these kids, teaching them cooperation and survival skills. These kids had to rely on one another for getting food made, taking down camp, packing their backpacks, making fire, and getting water. I found these individuals took a lot of pride in showing me the skills they had mastered and I believe that pride translated into self confidence they may have lacked previously.
It’s not just hoods in the woods that benefit from the outdoors however. I believe all of us who love outdoor activities or who simply love to observe nature do get a chemical boost from, the experience. Maybe it’s the cortisol, or adrenaline, or serotonin, or endorphins the body is creating, but something about a dose of nature reduces the need to pop pills.
The Nature Cure, ecotherapists, and a growing body of research, are all substantiating this.