For millennia, people have written about the joys of being in nature. Now that nature is no longer as much a part of our lives as it was for our forebears, it’s become clear that humans are, in a way, meant to be in touch with the wild and that our modern lifestyles are, to put it mildly, wreaking havoc on our mental health.
Today, it is fully understood by urban planners that views of green spaces, bodies of water, and other natural features do a lot to help improve the ambiance and “feel” of a space. However, there is now growing evidence that being in nature and doing activities in a natural setting can also help our minds heal.
For instance, it’s been found that patients with post-traumatic stress (PTS) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are likely to benefit from regular outdoor exposure, either through nature hikes or by doing regular therapy sessions outdoors.
Because PTS and PTSD often contribute to substance use disorder (SUD) and other mental health issues like generalized anxiety disorder, this kind of intervention has the potential to dramatically reduce the load on our overburdened mental healthcare system.
Below are some of the ways nature therapy may be beneficial for trauma. If you’re in North Texas and need to learn about rehabs that offer regular outdoor and nature therapy, check out this resource on inpatient drug rehabs in Dallas, TX.
1. It Gives Opportunities For Enjoyable Exercise
People with trauma and other mental health conditions will often benefit from some form of regular exercise. Exercise can help burn off anxious energy which is often common in people who have experienced trauma. It also makes your body release natural hormones that could help stabilize your mood and improve sleep — a problem often encountered by people with PTS and PTSD.
While exercise in urban areas is certainly a good option, nature also offers other perks that we’ll discuss later. If one has access to the beach, safe forest or desert trails, or other suitable natural features, chances are these offer enjoyable exercise opportunities for people of all ages.
Hiking, swimming, kayaking, and cycling are just some of the more common moderate impact outdoor activities that could help recovering individuals get the exercise they need. If one is up to the challenge, they can also try out more strenuous activities like rock climbing, cross-country skiing, surfing, and trail running.
Apart from their stress and anxiety-busting benefits, many of these exercises allow participants to be in a focused, meditative state, which in itself has direct benefits for reducing the effects of mental trauma.
2. Enjoying Nature May Help Build And Improve Emotional Resilience
While it takes much more than a nature trip to heal people who’ve had serious traumas, there is growing evidence that outdoor therapy can build emotional resilience in both children and adults. Some studies seem to suggest that activities held in the elements can help build a sense of control that influences other aspects of our lives.
Emotional resilience is usually defined as the ability to continue normal functioning after experiencing trauma. It is our ability to adapt and overcome when we’re faced with a particularly serious event.
Resilience, however, is not an all-or-nothing quality. Unfortunately, trauma has a way of expressing itself in ways that are not obvious to either the victim or outside observers. Trauma survivors could be functional or superficially productive while also engaging in self-destructive behaviors like using drugs, stress eating, gambling, or impulse buying. Having better resilience may help prevent these negative behaviors from happening.
Outdoor activities in small groups are especially beneficial for improving emotional resilience for people of all ages. These group activities can build a sense of “relatedness” that can prevent recovering individuals from reaching for unhealthy coping strategies.
3. We Tend To Be Happier And Less Anxious When Close To Nature
Studies on groups of people with PTSD (particularly combat veterans and other people who encounter continuous traumatic experiences) seem to show that being in nature or in places that mimic nature like parks and gardens can significantly improve PTS and PTSD symptoms. Engaging in exercise and mindfulness practices in these settings further improves this effect.
Why this is the case is not entirely clear. However, given the benefits, natural settings may eventually be key to cost-effective trauma interventions in an increasingly overburdened healthcare system.
4. It Offers Opportunities For Social Bonding And Peer Support
The growing evidence in favor of outdoor therapy has also made it an increasingly popular supplemental intervention for all kinds of mental health issues, including PTSD, depression, anxiety, and even substance use disorder. In the context of trauma recovery, outdoor and nature therapy is often done in a group setting, which offers a variety of benefits for recovering individuals.
Because participants in group therapy sessions tend to have similar or at least relatable experiences, recovering individuals are better able to let their guard down, without fear of being misunderstood. Group therapy is also a source of new friendships and bonds, which may remain important throughout one’s life.
One may not even have to join these types of outdoor group therapy sessions to benefit. Simply bonding with other people over common interests can already help recovering individuals to heal and move on.
It seems that being in nature doesn’t only feel good, it may help us heal from invisible mental scars as well. For people with serious psychological trauma, exposure to nature can be key to allowing conventional therapy like cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication-assisted therapy to do its work.
As with any supplemental approach, nature therapy is not a substitute for conventional psychiatric intervention. However, because nature therapy is flexible and relatively easy to implement, it could be tried out by virtually anybody, with nothing to lose and much more to gain.