Nature can be your best therapy
Writers and poets have long been reminding us that being in nature is an ideal way to connect with ourselves and remember what’s most important in life. Even in these increasingly urbanised times, when it’s easy to feel like our daily lives are more out of touch with nature than ever before, most of us still feel drawn to natural places and experiences, if only in times of crisis. If you’ve ever taken your problems for a walk, for instance, sat on a rock overlooking the ocean or given flowers to someone you care about, you know firsthand how healing nature can be.
It seems simple enough: we need nature. But why does it feel so good to hear the rain on the roof or to feel the warmth of the sun on our bare skin? According to Sydney-based environmental psychologist Dr Rob Hall, it’s because, all our neuroses and soul searching aside, we’re still animals and that makes us sensitive to natural environments. “One of the things that makes natural environments nurturing to both body and spirit is being in contact with something that is in a sense real, authentic and genuine. It’s about a connection with the rest of life,” he says.
On a more practical level, Dr Hall maintains that being able to experience simple natural phenomena like a breeze or the progress of the day can also affect us. “Human beings, along with most other creatures, have nervous systems that are designed to respond to change. Very often in internal environments like buildings and offices, there is a great deal of stability so, for example, people’s body temperatures don’t go through their normal diurnal cycles — and when you go outside, they kick in again. We say, ‘I’m going out for some fresh air’ but what we really mean is that we’re going out to be stimulated by the play of light and air on our bodies.”
Experiencing natural environments passively is one thing, but what happens when we start interacting with nature? One “side-effect” of being active in a natural environment is it’s physically engaging — it takes us beyond mere theory and back to pure experience.
Sydney psychologist and surfer Louise Remond often recommends physical exercise as part of her treatment programs at the Health Psychology Unit at UTS. One form of exercise she prescribes, particularly for people suffering from anxiety or depression, is learning to surf, because among its many benefits it forces you to be present: “When you’re out in the surf, you don’t have much time to focus on the negative thoughts that might be going around in your head. Instead, you’re focused on ‘What am I going to do here? Do I duck-dive or paddle over the wave? Where’s the rip?’ Because of the immediacy of the environment, you’re concentrating on the next wave instead of worrying about the future.”
Take this “being active in nature” up a notch, into the adventure realm — with “adventure” defined by the Collins Australian Dictionary as “a risky undertaking of unknown outcome” — and the effects can be positively life-changing.
Leap of faith
Eight years ago, Heather Swan was a 34-year-old divorced working mum who, she says, “had never been camping outside a caravan park”. Then she went to see motivational speaker Glenn Singlemann (now her husband) give a talk on his latest climbing and BASEjumping* expeditions.
“I just looked at the image of him jumping off the Great Trango Tower [in Pakistan] and thought that was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen,” Swan recalls. “I’d had a lot of problems with anxiety and fear, just little things like standing up for myself or having enough confidence to try new things. I looked at that footage and thought, well, if you could do that, life would just be one big possibility. It wouldn’t be limited by what you thought you could and couldn’t do.”
With Singlemann’s guidance and encouragement, Swan took on the challenge of learning to BASEjump, first by getting physically fit then by learning to skydive, abseil and climb. Today, she is Australia’s most accomplished female BASEjumper and living proof that challenging yourself in the great outdoors can change your life. “I’m a different person [now]. Fear no longer controls me … I am happy to be myself, warts and all. I attribute that to pushing past discomfort and being committed to that bigger goal,” she says.
(*BASE is an acronym for the four kinds of objects BASEjumpers leap from: building, antennae, spans or bridges and earth or cliffs.)
The origin of adventure
Heather Swan’s decision to take up BASEjumping might seem extreme, but according to American psychologist Peter Levine, author of Waking the Tiger (about his nature-based approach to healing trauma and stress), we’re all biologically predisposed to seek adventure in our lives. “When humans roamed the hills and valleys, gathered roots and berries, hunted wild animals and lived in caves, our existence was closely linked to the natural world,” he says. “Every day, every minute, every second we were prepared to defend ourselves, our families and allies from predators and other dangers — often at the risk of our own lives.”
The irony of this prehistory, says Dr Levine, is that life-threatening situations came to shape our nervous systems to respond powerfully whenever we feel threatened. “To this day,” he says, “when we exercise this natural capacity, we feel exhilarated and alive, powerful, expanded, full of energy, ready to take on any challenge. Being threatened engages our deepest resources and allows us to experience our fullest potential as human beings.”
This makes sense to Dr Hall, who has his own theory about why more and more people are turning to adventure for the challenges they feel are missing in their everyday lives. “In sophisticated society, we don’t very often get clear feedback about how we’re doing,” he says. “I’m talking about this in the broadest sense: How am I performing as a human? How am I performing in my job? When you go whitewater rafting or abseiling, for example, the feedback about your performance is absolutely unambiguous. People find that very valuable. It strips away the veneer, and if I push the envelope further and do something dangerous, it’s even clearer still.”
Another attraction of adventures in natural places is they can allow us time away from other people. One of Australia’s most experienced high-altitude mountaineers and the first Australian woman to climb Everest, Brigitte Muir has been active in the outdoors for almost 30 years. It all started as a way to escape the crowds and pollution of industrial Belgium, where she grew up. Going up into the mountains, she says, was all about “finding space in a place where there was not much space and a lot of people. I think it’s very important to be able to get away from routine and normal life, to spend time with yourself, and the wilderness is the ideal place to do that.”
But Muir admits that being with other people in a wilderness setting can also be extremely beneficial. “There are two ways to grow out of time in the wilderness,” she says. “There’s doing it on your own, which gives you an amazing connection with the land and yourself, because there’s nothing getting in the way and you can do some really deep thinking. And there’s growing through interacting with other people, which is, to me, a very important part of life.”
Expect the unexpected
In her work as a trekking and mountaineering guide, Muir has often seen her clients transformed by their experiences: “I think to have a life-changing experience, you have to get out of your comfort zone, whatever that may be. People seem to always get what they need out of a trip, even if it’s not what they think they need. Climbing a mountain is a journey and getting to the top is a bit of a bonus, really, because mountains, being natural, are unpredictable. I’ve seen people on trips who have the idea, ‘Right, I’ve got to get to the summit and that’s that’, and not getting there is exactly what they needed.”
So we may be led to adventure by primitive urges, but when we get there we often find nature acting on us as much as the other way around. In other words, the transformative power of adventure often comes not from what we do but from what happens to us while we’re out there. Sometimes it might even be beneficial not to be in control.
Australian mountaineer Sue Fear, who climbed Everest in 2003, says our desire to control everything is often thwarted in an alpine environment — and that’s a healthy experience to have. “The great thing about [being in the mountains] is that nature doesn’t listen, it doesn’t care, it doesn’t let humans control the weather or the way a mountain is,” she says. “We’ve corrupted so many things. We always want to change things. And I think it’s very rewarding or rebuilding to your spirit to go to these places. When you get to the foot of Everest, you realise you are just a speck in the scale of things.”
Simple is best
Of course, you don’t have to travel to the ends of the earth to experience a shift in perspective. As psychologist Louise Remond says, even just going surfing at your local beach can be incredibly beneficial. “Just sitting on your board, it’s quiet out there and away from all the busyness; it’s quite meditative and it’s beautiful. Then there’s the more spiritual dimension, the sense that all this stuff that I’m getting caught up in at work or at school or the fight I’m having with this person … somehow removing yourself from all that gives you a wider view of life.”
Which brings us back to the simple joys of nature that are accessible to us all. When all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other, or pitch your tent, or collect firewood, time seems to stretch out and life slows down. You reset your internal clock to the natural rhythms of the day: the sunrises and sunsets, the tides, the weather conditions. It might sound paradoxical, but even having your progress halted by a natural phenomenon (a rising river after heavy rain, for instance) can be liberating. Perhaps because it’s not personal. When we’re thwarted by other people, it’s easy to feel frustrated, even hurt, but when nature blocks our way, we know it’s not about us; it’s just the world (the waves, the weather, the wind) doing its thing.
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” American naturalist John Muir (1838-1914), who founded the Sierra Club, penned those words in 1901, but they could have been written yesterday. For even as we rush forward into technology’s embrace, it seems we haven’t forgotten our natural roots.
Melbourne clinical psychologist Dr Simon Crisp, who has pioneered a new form of therapy that uses adventure and wilderness elements to effect change in adolescents (see “Adventure as therapy”), is confident we’re always going to seek out experiences in nature as a way to ground ourselves. “The more we advance as a technological society, the more relevant it will be to go into natural environments, to get back to basics in terms of how we live, how we relate to others and who we are,” he says. “We can build cities and protect ourselves from the natural world but we’re deluding ourselves if we think we can keep doing that indefinitely … Global warming and weather changes are important reminders to appreciate the connection we have with the natural world, and I think there’s a lot of rich learning in those environments that we can really benefit from.”
You could say that wherever we are, and whatever we are doing, we are in touch with nature — because we are natural ourselves. Even just being aware of breathing in and out reconnects us to the natural world and reminds us that we are, after all, a part of it.
Adventure as therapy
The concept that adventures have internal as well as external elements may not be new, but harnessing the transformative effects of adventure is a relatively recent phenomenon.
It all started in 1941 when the first Outward Bound school was set up in Scotland. It was the middle of World War II and Blue Funnel Line was losing merchant ships to German U-Boat torpedos; contrary to expectations, however, the sailors who survived weren’t the young ones but the older, less athletic men. The chairman of Blue Funnel Line called in academic and educationist Kurt Hahn, who proposed that the young men weren’t surviving because they hadn’t had enough life experience to withstand the hardships of being in an open lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic.
To remedy the situation, Hahn developed a rigorous program of physical challenges with the aim of increasing the self-confidence and resilience of young merchant seamen. The program worked — mortality rates of young sailors decreased — and Outward Bound became a worldwide movement, spreading to 28 countries. (Outward Bound Australia was founded in 1956 and celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.)
Since then, adventure has evolved into a therapeutic tool where it has been used to treat a wide range of psychological issues. There are currently three basic approaches to “adventure as therapy”:
- Wilderness Therapy typically revolves around a communal living situation in a wilderness setting with an emphasis on learning how to function in a group.
- Adventure Therapy doesn’t require wilderness and can be very short term; in the case of a 20-minute ropes course, for instance, it can even take place indoors (in a climbing gym).
- Wilderness Adventure Therapy® is a 10-week program developed by Melbourne clinical adolescent and family psychologist, and former Outward Bound leader, Dr Simon Crisp. In addition to an overnight camping expedition, a series of one-day adventure activities (such as caving, rock climbing/abseiling, rafting, cross-country skiing and ropes courses) and a final five- or six-day bushwalking or rafting expedition in the wilderness, the program includes clinical practices such as individual assessment, goal-setting and counselling.
Our understanding of why adventure is therapeutic, both in clinical and recreational settings, is also evolving. For one thing, it’s not just about physical experiences any more, says Dr Crisp. “The research I’ve done so far seems to suggest that the amount of physical challenge, hardship or risk-taking in an activity isn’t strongly related to the amount of benefit people report. It’s not about being the most extreme or the most remote.”
What does seem important, he says, is the experience of being able to achieve things together and connect with other people through the activity, feeling empowered to take on challenges (that is, by having some control in decision-making) and making sure the activity suits the individual’s particular psychological needs.
Levine, Peter A., with Ann Frederick, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma (Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 1997).
Swan, Heather, Defying Gravity, Defying Fear: One Woman’s Journey (ABC Books, 2002).
Wilderness Adventure Therapy®
Club Speranza, with support from psychologist Louise Remond, runs Go and Surf Social (GASS) learn-to-surf days in Sydney for youths at risk of suicide and depression. T: (02) 9908 1233.
Louise Southerden is a freelance writer specialising in nature-based travel, meditation and Buddhism. She has an Honours degree in Psychology.