I have always felt a sense of calm and strength when I am in nature. Since I was a child, I felt more comfort in a hammock under my apple tree than with other people in most situations. I was always an outgoing child, but I often found myself struggling quietly with emotions and typing them into existence on my computer when everything got to be too much. Even in these vulnerable states in front of technology, nature relieved me of my loneliness. I would write about it and methodically compare myself to it, to have something to relate to, something that I knew deep down inside understood me and who I was. Looking back at my writings I see how I grew from them, how I connected with them, and made sense of everything that was happening through them. Little did I know that I was making use of a form of healing treatment that would later be recognized as Ecotherapy. For this project, I picked two writings that I drafted at different emotional states about six months apart. The first of my writings was at a low period where I related to a stormy night. My second text was during an elated phase where I was in awe at all that nature had to offer. The most striking finding for me, after re-evaluating both of these texts, was that nature helped me to express my feelings clearly in two extreme states of emotion.
In my poems, nature played a huge role in assisting me to better understand myself. Writing about nature is something that I think is very important and therapeutic, especially in the benefit of furthering personal understanding. Being active in nature has helped to give me a frame of reference to the beauty and majesty and freedom that it holds, though, regrettably, it can be something that I take for granted in my day to day life. Thinking about how positively it has affected my life has led me to wonder if nature is used as a therapy and what the probability is that it can, and will, be used more routinely.
My first writing was created in the midst of my initial encounter with depression. This poem helped me deal with the anxiety I had toward the uncharted waters of what laid ahead. I didn’t know what I was going to do after high school, nonetheless, what I was going to do with my life. I remember on a notably low emotional day I was sitting in my room and started tearing up. Everything seemed so overwhelming, and my Father had been particularly questioning of my future goals that week. As I began to sob it started to drizzle outside. As the rain got stronger against the window pane it drowned out my mounting cries. In the midst of it all I found my way to a computer and began to type what was happening until my own feelings spilt over into the poem. My head was pounding and I felt like I was typing faster than I could possibly think. When my hands were done with the keyboard I read what was on the screen and was deeply inspired.
I want to weep as the tree does. / I want to scream with the thunder / and dance with the lightning. / I want to laugh hysterically at that which makes me cry / . . . / I want to shake violently with the wind / and cry out when the drops cleanse my skin.
By writing this poem in the midst of such great emotional chaos I was using what a small group of psychologists are beginning to believe in and promote as Ecotherapy to help me deal with the unease and worry that I was facing. Martin Jordan gives a clearer idea of what this therapy entails when he says “[e]cotherapy forms a relationship to the natural world in order to enable us to make sense of our inner emotions and life experiences.” Ecotherapy is a way to slow down and take stock of what is really important to you, while being in a natural setting. There are a wide array of choices that range from a walk outside a few times a week to joining a gardening club for more structure, while those who are able to can go away for a few days, or even weeks, to center themselves. For myself the therapy was as simple as writing out how you are feeling while drawing inspiration from wildlife. Being skeptical about such a simple prescription is understandable, but “[a] 2007 study by researchers at the University of Essex in England found that a daily dose of walking outside could be as effective as taking antidepressant drugs for treating mild to moderate depression. Of course, it’s no secret that regular exercise is a powerful mood enhancer” (Walsh). To observe my poems as a form of therapy has brought about a new understanding for personal rehabilitation that I have never seen before.
In the previous excerpt that I took from my poem, titled “An Inner Storm,” nature was reacting so fiercely in all of the mental images that I saw when writing it. The tree was bowing at a dangerous angle; the thunder was rolling through the clouds, while the lightning lit up the entire sky. Nature was unapologetic. It did not care who it disturbed or if what it was doing would inconvenience someone. I gave it all of the qualities that I wanted to come through in my personality. I wanted to be strong like the storm was in this poem, I wanted to tell someone what it was that was bothering me, and demand the support that I needed while I came up with a solution that would get me over my poor mental state. While my poems never stopped educating me, I eventually paired Ecotherapy with a more classic form of psychology and was able to talk with someone, in detail, about what I felt I was going through. Over time I was able to move on and see the normalcy in what I was feeling and manage my uncertainties in healthier ways.
Although Ecotherapy may seem like good news to a small group of people who openly admit to having mental or psychological disorders, it should in fact concern anyone who cares about their personal and mental well being. Mental disorders are one of the most overlooked types of illnesses in developed countries, and are usually seen as someone that is merely “having a bad day.” Even in my case, where I was able to overcome my situational depression, anxiety proved to be a challenge. Anxiety is the most common mental disorder in the United States, affecting 18% of the population (40 million people 18 years and older), and costing roughly $42 billion a year (“Facts & Statistics”). It seems that this subject would affect more people either directly or through a close family member or friend. Even if someone is “having a bad day” I would think it better to go for a short walk than to brew in the badness of the day and let it affect the goodness that is all around us. This call to the present moment is one of the more beneficial lessons gained from performing Ecotherapy outdoors.
The second of my writings was scribbled down after a meaningful conversation with my Grandfather. It was one of the last weeks before I would move up to Portland to go to culinary school, so I made it a point to go and see him a few times that week. The conversations that we had were filled with advice from one generation to the next and my dreams and aspirations for the future. One particular day when he was giving me advice that I felt was unwarranted I continued to say “I know” in hopes of getting him to change subjects. After a few minutes of this he looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Every time that you say ‘I know’ people expect you to really know, and if you don’t then you’re shit outta luck.” His words hit me like a ton of bricks. For such a long time I felt that I had to know everything to seem experienced or knowledgeable; two things, that at the time, I was not. After his remark, it dawned on me that I was saying “no” to the most basic type of education; the verbal passing of information. I was trying to impress people with the illusion of personal and worldly understanding, when in fact I was closing myself off to information that I could actually use. As I was driving home I thought of the other lessons that I might not have learned because of my lack of attention to the lessons that surrounded me, a key teaching of Ecotherapy.
I don’t know why our youth tries to be old. / We do not understand experience. / We do not understand the concept of life. / . . . / We must remember like the elephant. / . . . / We must love like the penguin. / . . . / But most of all we must grow like the tree. / Strong and marveled. / Found at our roots, where we are grounded, no matter how undesired the conditions. / One can follow us through our branches, wind with our bark, and hurtle our knots, / . . . / Then finish at our top where we become feeble and slender, / But this is where we touch the sky.
The way I see it, informal education encompasses our being and it could make us better individually, and collectively, if we were to pay it mind. I was so moved after reading my piece that I went outside, sat in the swinging chair in the backyard, and looked out over the landscape. By practicing Ecotherapy through living in the moment I was giving myself the opportunity to gauge how I was doing as a separate and individual entity. I knew that I was excited for my adventure to Portland, even before this conversation and poem had been brought into existence, but they both helped me to realize that I needed to humble my individual ego and self. I did not know it all and that was okay. I was beginning to realize that I was a much smaller part of a bigger plan that I could not even fathom. I came to the conclusion that all matters of life, be it another human with their words, a small bird chirping outside my window, or the pitter-patter of rain on a roof top, were worthy and well qualified to be my teachers, so long as I gave them the time to teach.
In today’s society it has become common to dismiss the healing capabilities of the great outdoors, even with clear evidence of its benefits. It is said that “[p]atients recovering from surgery heal faster when they have a window with a view of a tree or garden [or water] . . . Even violent offenders have been shown to behave less aggressively when they are given a window with a view of the great outdoors” (“Ecotherapy”). While people rarely admit as much, it is clear that we often take for granted the proximity that we have to nature and the lessons that we can take from our time with it. Steven Taylor, a doctor of psychology, has a few theories as to why such a positive affect is almost guaranteed. One rational is that humans have only recently, as a species, become restricted to our man-made environments. In my case, I was so busy packing and making check lists for my trip that I failed to enjoy the vivid colors and fresh air that was just a sliding door away. Prior to this environmental transition we were very much out in nature, living off the land, and moving with the seasons, so “contact with green spaces is therefore like going back home, and fills us with the same sense of safety and belonging,” much like a child feels when being with its mother. Taylor’s second argument on why nature is so therapeutic for humans is that it is, quite simply, simple. “In nature, our minds process a lot less information than normal, and they don’t wear themselves out by concentrating [on different things]. . . [this] slow[s] down the normal ‘thought-chatter’ which runs chaotically through our minds.” In our normal lives we get pulled in so many different directions and tend to “spread ourselves thin,” almost without thought. To me, the act of slowing down is a requirement that keeps us in balance and attentive to our inner selves.
When one takes a step back to look at the situation in its entirety, some readers may challenge my positive outlook by insisting that there is a lack of structure and medical prowess involved with Ecotherapy. This shortage of qualification can lead some people to believe that it is not as effective a prescription as other psychological therapies. Mind, a charity in England, assisted in the funding of 130 projects, from 2008 to 2013, that helped people with, or at risk of, mental illnesses take on their issues with the aid of Ecotherapy. Activities were things like gardening/food growing and environmental conservation. “Mind . . . released . . . a report including new findings . . . showing the many benefits of ecotherapy for mental well-being. It has been proven to improve mental health, boost self esteem, help people with mental health problems return to work, improve physical health, and reduce social isolation” (“New Research Shows”). The study of Ecotherapy is still young, and because of this there is much that will need to be discovered to make it a viable source for psychologists to take on. With that said, my personal experiences with such therapeutic practices have helped me to both compile my thoughts and reduce anxiety like stresses that periodically occur. Other studies that have been conducted on healing times of patients, focus and attention that people gain after being out in nature, and the overall health that it brings (e.g. lower blood pressure and increased self-esteem) have proved to be very promising (Jabr). I whole heartedly support the Ecotherapy movement that is slowly taking shape in the world of psychological treatments, not only because of the benefits that I have gained from it, but also because of the attention to the world around us that is inevitably endorsed.
In conclusion, I see the purpose and promise that Ecotherapy has to offer, both individually and as a whole. Getting back to nature is like getting back to our roots and who we and our ancestors have been, just a few short years past. The added mental improvements that coincide with the physical gain of breathing fresh air and being in a natural setting are immeasurable to an individual spiritually, and, if practiced regularly, would help to cut down the health care costs that seem to be on a constant rise. For me, the experiences I have of being in and drawing from nature in my writings have been extremely fundamental in getting me to where I am today, physically and mentally. It has always been a straight forward solution when faced with a difficult day or an unhealthy attitude. With research on the subject happening daily, I hope that it will one day become a workable option for the masses and something that will be looked at as a true solution to every ones problems, not just for those that want to lead a holistic lifestyle.
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