Nature therapy: the psychological benefits of outdoor exploration

Runners make their way through Sunset Trail, Sept. 29, 2018.

The Colorado Plateau is home to some of the richest natural environments in America. Mental health experts in Flagstaff are encouraging community members to spend more time outside, as doing so may offer a multitude of mental health benefits to outdoor adventurers.

Dr. Christine Westra, a resident medical doctor for the NAU’s Honors College, is currently working to obtain the proper certifications to become a nature therapy guide. Through practice of the Japanese art of Forest Bathing, or “Shinrin-Yoku,” Westra said she’s learned many ways in which nature is effective for improving mental health. She referenced Richard Louv’s book, "Last Child in the Woods," and talked about Nature Deficit Disorder, a problem Louv claims is affecting many young people today.

“Louv uses the term [Nature Deficit Disorder] to describe a set of symptoms that some kids have, which look very similar to symptoms related with ADHD. These symptoms are heightened when kids aren’t exposed to nature. Kids who go out and play for hours a day in nature, like most of us used to, don’t have a lot of these symptoms.”

Westra said that in nature therapy, the role of the therapist is diminished, while the elements of nature serve as the primary facilitator for mental improvement.

“One of the sayings they teach us as guides is that the forest is the true therapist — the guide just opens a path,” Westra said. “Nature gives us what we need, in a way.”

Back2Basics is a program based in Flagstaff which was created to address substance abuse and alcoholism in young adult men. The organization offers longterm programs in which participants, in addition to receiving primary care, partake in several outdoor expeditions each week. Founder and CEO of Back2Basics Roy DuPrez emphasized the importance of nature in regard to mental health and said he incorporates nature into many facets of his organization.

“[Being outdoors] is a more comprehensive experience as opposed to being in the usual cinder block, hospital atmosphere,” DuPrez said.

The main focus of Back2Basics is to strip down distractions so that participants are able to focus on making successful recoveries. This process of eliminating the extraneous, DuPrez said, is extremely beneficial to anyone.

“When you look away from your phone or screen for those hours, you can kind of see what’s going on in nature: the basics,” DuPrez said. “I think that we’ve over-complicated our lives and haven’t necessarily gotten any happier because of it.”

Back2Basics found success when incorporating nature into its methods. DuPrez said many of the organization’s patients feel pride and satisfaction when they overcome obstacles presented by nature. DuPrez finds that, even in his own life, choosing to be outdoors often achieves a better outcome than staying inside.

“We all struggle, some days more than others, in terms of how we perceive ourselves,” DuPrez said. “At Back2Basics, we use this cliché, which is, ‘bring the body, and the mind will follow,’ and it’s so true.”

DuPrez made it clear that spending time outside may not solve everyone’s mental battles. He said nature therapy is best applied to those patients who are open to participating. Medication for patients may also be required in many cases.

“It’s not that our program is the be-all, end-all magic bullet to solve everyone’s mental health needs,” DuPrez said. “Our program works for those people who want it. I think that’s key. It’s not for those that don’t want it.”

Hannah Krivickas, president of the NAU Hiking Club, is no stranger to being active outdoors. Krivickas said that, like DuPrez, she values nature as a means to feel refreshed. She seeks the company of nature to improve her mental state.

“Spending time outdoors gets me away from social media, the internet and everything else,” Krivickas said. “It gives me one thing to focus on. Whether I’m hiking, viewing the scenery or enjoying the people, being outdoors simplifies everything. It quiets my head.”

Hiking Club Treasurer Brett Moll said the peace and quiet found in nature helps him handle his stress.

“It’s truly stress-free to be out in the wilderness,” Moll said. “Day-to-day stuff is gone, and all you have are your surroundings, which tend to be beautiful in the outdoors.”

Westra said that connecting with nature goes deeper than the utilitarian aims of fitness — it’s about being open to and aware of one’s natural surroundings.

“Becoming more connected with nature has allowed me to better understand myself,” Westra said. “I think a lot of people are stressed because they’re trying to make themselves fit into a world that’s difficult to be a part of. We all judge each other by society’s expectations, but nature doesn’t judge. It allows you to simply be.”

Being connected to nature is not only beneficial for reducing stress. Westra said it’s helpful for reducing anxiety and depression. Through focus and awareness of one’s relationship to the environment, negative thought patterns can be more easily broken. Westra said forming these connections not only improves mental health, but is essential to the human experience.

“Go out into nature somewhere and really open yourself up to it,” Westra said. “Open yourself up to all the different connections that nature has for us as human beings. In a way, it’s about remembering your place in the world. We all evolved in nature and we’re wired to be connected to nature. We are a part of nature, and our practice is to remember that.”

Moll clarified that connecting with nature doesn’t necessarily require people to abandon society in order to experience benefits to mental health.

“There’s something very nice about running water and toilets that flush,” Moll said. “The amenities of the modern world are amazing, but so is being out in the wilderness. I think you can have a healthy balance of modern life and being in nature.”

Westra said that simply choosing a more forested path on the way to class can have a powerful impact in improving one’s mood. While she acknowledged that outdoor activity isn’t a cure-all solution for those battling mental illness, Westra encouraged community members to experience firsthand the mental benefits of spending time outdoors.