Treating Anxiety With The Wilderness

Posted by Phil Bryan on September 12, 2023

977E4C6A D238 4BF2 ABED 012CCFC4FB44In a fast-paced world filled with constant stressors, treating anxiety in adolescents has become a critical concern for many families. The traditional methods of therapy and medication have proven effective for some, but there exists an alternative approach that is gaining increasing recognition - the healing power of nature. Nature-based therapy, also known as ecotherapy is an innovative and holistic approach to treating anxiety that harnesses the rejuvenating forces of the natural world, and is the basis for what Evoke does. Immersing oneself in nature can provide profound relief from anxiety, allowing space for other emotions to surface. The natural world is an antidote to the relentless stimuli and pressures of contemporary living. When individuals immerse themselves in nature, their senses are recalibrated, and their minds can begin to find solace.

Studies have shown that spending time in nature triggers a relaxation response in the human brain. The symphony of natural sounds, the sight of swaying trees and flowing water, and the gentle caress of a breeze all work in harmony to reduce stress and anxiety. The Japanese practice of "forest bathing" or Shinrin-yoku, where people immerse themselves in the forest, has gained popularity for its anxiety-reducing benefits. It's more than just a leisurely walk; it's an immersive experience that can lead to reduced cortisol levels, lower heart rates, and a deeper sense of calm. The natural world is teeming with diverse life forms, from towering trees to microscopic organisms. This biodiversity has a profound impact on human well-being. Exposure to a variety of plant and animal species in natural settings has been linked to enhanced mental health.

A biodiverse environment can stimulate curiosity and excitement, providing a welcome distraction from anxious thoughts. Birdwatching, for example, encourages people to focus their attention on the diverse bird species they encounter, fostering a sense of connection to the natural world. Such experiences can reduce feelings of isolation and promote feelings of awe, which have been shown to alleviate anxiety. The book “The Nature Fix” by Florence Williams has several interesting chapters on these phenomena. AT Evoke, we provide an Audubon guide to the local field area to each group to allow students to foster their knowledge further.

Nature operates on its own timeline, unaffected by the relentless pace of modern society. This disconnect from our natural circadian rhythms, often called "nature deficit disorder," can contribute significantly to anxiety. By spending time outdoors, people can gradually reacquaint themselves with the Earth's cycles and regain a sense of connection to their own lives outside of the expectation of others. Camping trips, hikes, and even gardening can serve as avenues for people to reconnect with the natural rhythms of life. The simplicity of cooking a meal outdoors or gazing at the stars can remind individuals that there is a world outside of their immediate concerns, helping them regain perspective and alleviate anxiety. Evoke clients spend much of their time, except when we therapists interrupt it, going to bed when it gets dark, getting up close to when it gets light, eating fresh food with minimal preservatives, and exercising most days. This can serve to allow a client to experience a basic reconnection to themselves in their body, and that grounding can help reduce the symptoms of anxiety experienced by that person.

Mindfulness, the practice of being fully present in the moment, has been proven as a powerful tool in managing anxiety. Evoke clients will all experience groups and individual assignments based on our Mind/Body/Spirit (MBS) curriculum. Nature provides an ideal setting for developing mindfulness, as it encourages a deep connection with the present moment.
When people are in nature, they often become more aware of their senses. They notice the texture of tree bark, the rustle of leaves, or the scent of wildflowers. These sensory experiences ground them in the here and now, redirecting their thoughts away from the worries that fuel their anxiety. The mindfulness cultivated in nature can be carried over into everyday life, helping individuals better manage their anxiety in various settings.

Engaging in physical activities within a natural setting has been proven to be especially effective in treating anxiety. Exercise, in general, is known to release endorphins, the body's natural mood enhancers, but exercising in nature amplifies these benefits. Clients will often ask, especially when they are new to the program “Why do we hike?” Hiking in the field can provide both physical and mental relief from anxiety. The rhythmic motion of walking, the challenge of ascending a hill, or the thrill of navigating a river can occupy the mind and promote a sense of accomplishment. The combination of exercise and natural beauty creates a powerful synergy that combats anxiety from both physical and emotional angles.

In a world besieged by anxiety, nature stands as a powerful ally in the battle for mental well-being. Its ability to soothe, reconnect, and heal is a testament to the intrinsic relationship between humans and the natural world. While traditional therapies and medications remain essential tools in the fight against anxiety, the therapeutic potential of nature should not be underestimated.

Nature therapy reminds us that the path to tranquility can often be found in the simplicity and beauty of the natural world, waiting to embrace those who seek it. Treating anxiety in nature is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and it may not replace other forms of treatment for everyone. However, it offers a holistic and accessible approach that can complement existing strategies or stand alone as a significant part of an individual's self-care routine. This, along with directed therapy and the relationships Evoke clients form with the guides and each other during their time with us is what leads to the results that can be expected of our wilderness therapy program.



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