Nature: Central to Wilderness Therapy
Wilderness therapy programs are, by definition, outdoors in natural environments. But with the evolution of wilderness therapy into a research-based therapeutic model that includes more sophisticated techniques and approaches than just hiking and busting* (although these remain important!), the relevance and value to humans of being in nature can be forgotten. I want to emphasize that wilderness therapy started because of the inherent value of being in a natural environment. And that is still, in my opinion, one of the main reasons it is so effective.
Team4Nature, an organization in England, asked this question on social media last year: Why is nature so important to human beings? The chart below summarizes the responses. One of my favorite comments: “It helps my anxiety. Nature makes me feel calm and reminds me to be mindful of the world around me through engaging all of the senses. It allows me to just be.” Visit their website to read more of the individual responses.
An article published by the University of Minnesota summarizes numerous research studies that consistently conclude: nature heals, soothes, restores and connects, reduces blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and the production of stress hormones, helps people cope with pain, improves attention span in individuals with ADHD in a lasting way, and increases one’s sense of connection to self and others. “This experience of connection may be explained by studies that used fMRI to measure brain activity. When participants viewed nature scenes, the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love lit up, but when they viewed urban scenes, the parts of the brain associated with fear and anxiety were activated. It appears as though nature inspires feelings that connect us to each other and our environment.” Conversely, studies at the Mayo Clinic have found that nature deprivation and too much screen time can cause depression, obesity, behavioral problems, irregular sleep, violent tendencies, poor academic performance, and dampened creativity.
I realize I am preaching to the choir to many who will read this. Most already know the value of doing something outdoors. Going to the park. Walking the dog. Getting out of the city. There were 237,000,000 people who visited National Parks last year. That was the lowest number since the 1960s--it is usually more than 300,000,000 people a year. Three hundred million. Humans are part of nature; it’s in our DNA. We have a need to maintain some connection with the natural world.
Here at Evoke, many of my adolescent male clients experience considerable anxiety and depression. Many spend hours a day in front of an electronic screen, and sometimes the transition into the wilderness can be difficult. But after a while, the absence of electricity and electronics becomes a blessing. Brains calm down. The guys begin to interact in real time with real people. The natural environment in which they live becomes familiar, comforting, a source of interest and beauty. There is a reconnect. Or sometimes a connection for the first time.
Wilderness therapy has evolved into a sophisticated form of therapy. It continues to improve as new research identifies additional aspects, approaches, and theoretical formulations that contribute to its efficacy.
The one aspect that will always define wilderness therapy is that it occurs in nature. It is also the one aspect that makes it different from other forms of treatment. And makes it so powerful.
*busting is the process of making a fire with a bowdrill set