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Ecotherapy: how does the great outdoors improve mental health?

Oliver James is a renowned British psychologist. Here, his recent article in the Guardian explores the role that ‘ecotherapy’ can take in leading to a healthier mind.

“At the age of 11 I was an angry boy who earned unpopularity through assiduous selfishness and hostility. At that time I was at a boarding school in Kent, surrounded by rich, fecund forest. It proved my saviour in several different ways.

The first was literal. The forest was my protection from occasional hordes of other boys who decided to pick on me. Because I was nimble, I would leg it into the forest and conceal myself by hiding under piles of leaves or in bushes. I would lie completely still and in between the cries of the chasing pack, listen to the sounds of the wood. The forest wrapped me up and hid me.

But during the spring and summer terms it was also a place where I could feel pleasure in solitude and through which I was able to become elevated beyond my unhappy terrestrial life. I would head off to the edges of the estate in which the school was located and climb to the top of some very tall trees. From that position of sovereignty, I could relax. I gazed out across the countryside, above, as well as within it.

It was slightly scary to be so high up. I was aware that a fall would be fatal. But it made me feel safe from the teachers, with whom I refused to collaborate, and the other boys, who quite understandably, wanted revenge for my atrocities. It is interesting that such a seemingly uncivilised boy could have felt such a strong sense of the beauty surrounding him when at the top of those trees. It was an intensely aesthetic experience; the shapes of the tree trunks intrigued me, the sharp greens of the leaves soothed, the sunlight refracting through in uneven flashes. The mosses growing at the base felt cosy, the bark’s springy sponginess felt lithe in my hand.

Later on, as a 14-year-old being educated at an all-boys school I was shipped off for a week in the summer holidays on a camping adventure with other teenagers. Much to our surprise, the organisers announced that we had to take ourselves off for 24 hours. We were given a few shillings (it was 1968) and told to take our sleeping bags and a tin for cooking in, but not our tents. We were not to return until lunchtime the next day (this was before the era of health and safety).

The experience of having to fend for ourselves certainly created a solidarity. The strongest memory I have is of successfully starting a fire by rubbing sticks together, enabling us to cook some baked beans. The power of night also stays with me: we had to find somewhere to sleep (a barn did the trick), but above all, it gave me an unprecedented awareness of the simple fact that night and day are profound, inescapable realities.

Ecotherapy encompasses a wide variety of interventions, whether they be prolonged periods in wilderness, gardening or individual therapy. They are all united by the concept that exposure to nature will improve wellbeing and healthy living. Reviews of the evidencesuggest that it can, but what is the theory behind it? Why should immersion in greenery (even if only a municipal park) or huge landscapes (mountains, the sea, deserted regions) reduce depression, delinquency, addiction and other problems?

Many ecotherapeutic interventions entail group activities like my camping trip. Wilderness programmes (often misrepresented as boot camps) are created for troubled teenagers, such as the delinquent, the drug-addicted and the depressed. They can consist of as much as eight weeks of living in small groups in remote regions.

A significant part of their effect is achieved by forcing the client to concentrate on survival and the need to cooperate with others in order to do so. The sense of isolation and the absence of now common modern methods for self-stimulation, such as the internet and substance abuse, are also believed to help the client to detoxify from established bad patterns.

But nature is also shown to be independently important. The egocentricity of clients is often reduced by awareness of something much bigger than them, whether it be mountains, wide open plains or huge skies. The feeling that the client is the centre of the universe is called into question by the sheer scale and complexity of nature. For many clients, hell has been other people in their normal lives. The solitude and lack of pressure to satisfy the demands of peers and family lead to significant improvements in such self-attributes as esteem, efficacy and control.

There are many reports of clients of all ages having spiritual experiences as a result of exposure to wilderness. They report a deep sense of connection to all things. A heightened awareness of plants, animals and landscape leads them to ponder existence beyond themselves. The power of nature encourages a sense of higher powers and of connection both to self and to others.

Accessing the inner child

Why would nature have this benign effect? A valuable theory was offered by a leading figure in this field, Michael Cohen founder and co-ordinator of the American Project NatureConnect. He maintains that nature offers a different civilisation from that of human culture. Earth offers a wisdom, joy and beauty that excludes pollution, war and insanity. Nature is willing to share its magic and secrets with anyone, anywhere, any time. He writes that, "the natural world produces no garbage. On a macro level, everything is valued, nothing is discarded or unwanted and that defines unconditional love in action … we, as part of life, inherit the natural world’s integrity as our inner nature, a profound globally shared creation blueprint which too often we, demeaningly, call 'the little child within us’."

Cohen contrasts modern techno-logic with bio-logic. Bio-logic, he argues, uses our multisensory ways of knowing and being for harmonious survival. Techno-logic employs words and stories that exclude our natural sensory wisdom. Our intellects, it seems, dislocate us from natural senses and feelings, like nurturing, place, curiosity, hunger, motion, trust, empathy, sound, compassion and reason. By characterising these as morality or suchlike, we are separated from their truth, they become a story. To experience them truly we have to realise these traits are solely of, by and from the natural world (one might argue that conventional education is an exercise in such dislocation).

Cohen gives an example of men able to access their natural senses. "In Scotland, farmers were overturning their hay bales to exterminate rats living beneath them. A trio of rats tried to flee but, unlike the other fleeing rats, these three stayed closely together which limited their ability to escape." The farmers saw that one of the rats was blind and the others were guiding it to safety. Deeply moved, the farmers did not kill them. Sufficiently in tune with their inner nature, their socialised farming selves were overridden.

Cohen maintains that our conditioning makes us use words, symbols and images to represent our natural sensory world. The representation of nature becomes more immediate and real to us than the direct sensing of it. I remember an episode in my early 20’s which exemplifies this. From my birth onwards I visited a beach with a beautiful view in north Cornwall. I can still recall the smell of the air, the sound of the seagulls, the feel of the hot sand underneath my feet as a child. But whilst at university, I noticed something awful. I would find it impossible to stand on that beach without trying to equate it with a moment or scene from a fiction – a film, a novel, a poem. I distinctly recall trying to force myself to stop doing that and the desperation I felt at my inability to experience this place again in its raw beauty, without having to put it into words or to experience it as analogous to a fiction.

Cohen offers a number of simple and practical techniques (in the paper linked to above) that anyone can employ to stimulate what he calls our "old-brain", the unpasteurized natural experience of nature. They overlap neatly with the current vogue for mindfulness which increases awareness of your bodily states through meditation; our bodies are part of nature, our minds can disconnect us from our bodies and from nature.

Perspective and limits

It is important to recognise the limits of what exposure to nature can achieve. Telling someone who is depressed to go and smell flowers or immerse themselves in beautiful landscapes is unlikely to work on its own. If that person is a single mother with a six-month-old baby and a landlord chasing her rent, her depression might just turn into aggression at such a suggestion. Likewise, if she is depressed because her father belittled her from an early age.

The fundamental causes of emotional distress are psychosocial (and not genetic – it was recently admitted by our leading gene psychologist that he can’t find any genes to explain mental illness). However, it is also true that we are twice as likely to be emotionally distressed if we are urban rather than rural (and four times more likely to suffer schizophrenia). Part of the reason for this is estrangement caused by lack of exposure to natural sights, sounds and smells, to dislocation from the natural rhythms of the seasons, of night from day.

Ecotherapies work because they reconnect us with nature; its external reality but most fundamentally, our inner natures.”

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