The Sound of Trees Clapping: Nature as Therapy in Recovery - path in the woodsLook for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife
I mean the bare necessities
Old Mother Nature’s recipes
That brings the bare necessities of life.
~sung by Balu in Disney’s The Jungle Book

For you shall go out with joy, and be led out with peace;
the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing before you,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
~Isaiah 55:12

As you know if you’ve been keeping up with the blog posts, I recently visited Mountain Laurel Recovery Center and spent at least a few sentences raving about its natural beauty: trees, fields, plants, all under a blue (at the time) sky. You may remember that the Clinical Director, Trinity Cowburn, regularly takes residents to visit the PA Grand Canyon and bask in its healing beauty. Most of us think of nature as healing; we feel better when see a tree or some flowers in the middle of a city or when we return from a hike in the woods. For hundreds of years, people have assumed nature has healing properties. (I read many books as a child about children sent away to the sea to heal from consumption, for example, and thoughtful leaders around the world have incorporated nature into urban planning: check out Singapore’s garden city).

Only recently, though, have scientists begun to study and verify what we’ve all known for a long time: that time spent in nature affects our brains in ways that heal. Spending time looking at a tree, walking in the woods, or wading in a stream lowers our stress levels and blood pressure at the least and at best leads to spiritual awakening. A new field of ecotherapy (also called wilderness therapy, environmental therapy, and other names) has bloomed, and some doctors are even writing prescriptions for time spent outdoors.

So how exactly does nature improve our health?

  • It increases empathy and altruism. One study (referenced in this really interesting article in National Geographic) showed that people who looked at urban images experienced increased blood flow to the amygdala, an area of the brain that processes fear and anxiety; people who looked at natural scenes had more activity in the parts of the brain associated with empathy and kindness.
  • It improves problem-solving by decreasing stress and mental fatigue. Looking at grass, trees, flowers, streams, squirrels, etc. gives our mind something to focus on without demanding much mental energy, allowing our brains to “wander, rest, and recover.”
  • It decreases rumination (what’s happening when you’re feeling sad and can’t stop thinking about what made you sad). A 2015 study by Stanford scientists (referenced in another great article in The Atlantic) compared people who took a 90-minute walk in nature with those who took a 90-minute walk along urban streets and discovered that the nature walkers showed a decrease in brooding and sadness.
  • It boosts our immune system. Fresh air contains chemicals given off by trees and plants; when we breathe in these chemicals, certain white blood cells are activated that kill off infected cells in our bodies.

Less research has been done on how nature therapy helps with addiction, but a dissertation by Michelle Black looks closely at how a relationship with nature affects those in recovery. The participants in her study, all in recovery, used nature as their higher power when working through the 12 steps. They connected with nature in different ways: some made daily efforts while others took extended wilderness trips. Participants reported that, over time, their connection with nature transcended its usefulness in the 12-step program and led them to make significant changes in their lifestyles and values. Some made changes in diet and some became more involved in environmentalism; a majority reported healing past trauma and having transcendent spiritual experiences.

I could proceed to list ideas for how/when/where to get outside, but I’m betting you can figure that out on your own. Don’t be discouraged if you live in an urban area where accessing nature seems to require time and money you don’t have. You don’t have to go to Yosemite National Park to reap the benefits of nature. Have plants and flowers in your home; notice the plant life you see on your way to work; take walks outdoors when possible. Interestingly, you don’t even have to enjoy a walk in nature for it to be healing; grumpily shivering through a cold, snowy walk in January improves your mood as much as a relaxed walk on a beautifully warm day in June. If none of the above works for you, look at a picture of a tree. Even this can be calming.

I’ll end with one of my favorite nature poems in the hopes that it speaks as deeply to you as it does to me.

Wild Geese
By Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

For more information about services offered by Mountain Laurel Recovery Center, please contact our professionals at (888) 909-7989. We are here to help.