May 19, 2016
‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ and Vitamin N (Nature)
A child was quoted in Richard Louv’s remarkable book ‘Last Child in the Woods’ as saying that he preferred to play indoors because “…that’s where all the electrical outlets are”, and although we may smile at his reasoning many of us adults often choose to stay indoors for the very same reason. When we are indoors, although we may be ‘plugged in virtually’ to the world around us through radio, television, social media etc, this also means that we are separated and isolated from the ‘actual’ world by a layer or indeed layers of technology. As human beings (Homo sapiens), we have been evolving for approximately 200,000 years (and indeed for millions of years previously), to be in close communion with not alone other humans but with ‘non-human nature’. If we deny ourselves this connection and spend too much time indoors, it may well result in increased levels of anxiety, fear, low mood and feelings of isolation. I amongst many would argue that this process of disconnection is well established and to the detriment of our communities is fostering a growing mistrust of others.
It is important to remember that ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ although a clever phrase from Richard Louv, it is not a ‘listed’ medical classification but rather “…to serve as a description of the human costs of alienation from the natural world”. However, much more importantly Louv in his work provokes us to look at our obsession with ‘labelling’ particularly in the area of mental health. As a counselling psychotherapist, it is neither within my role nor desire to ‘diagnose’ or ‘label’ another human being – people attend for support as they are and together we work out a agreed plan to move forward. I do of course continue to offer an indoor practice for those clients who prefer a more traditional approach, but generally speaking clients who decide to work outdoors never ask to go back to indoor therapy.
Taking ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ in the light that I believe Louv intended, I would say that the signs are all around us. Signs that are experienced both in our personal lives and in the communities which we have built such as isolation, anxiety, fear, denial and our obsession with ‘mindless consumerism’. This is not sustainable on either a personal level or a global level. Cataclysmic climate change is occurring and most of us are far more concerned with what Netflix will offer us next season. This is a denial of nature’s needs. We are nature, therefore we are denying ourselves what we need and we become unhappy and detached. We busy ourselves with what the author Ivor Southwood refers to as ‘Non-Stop Inertia’ i.e. we are very busy people going nowhere fast.
When I was a child in 1970’s and ‘80’s our primary school (a large school of around 600 pupils) did not have a telephone. The pace of the development and the universal availability of technology here in Ireland since that time are nothing short of astounding. Today, all of us have access to what we would now perceive to be ‘common gadgets’ in our pockets or handbags which are far superior and sophisticated to the available technologies which sent human beings in an aluminium container all the way to the moon only a few decades ago. It is because the available technology today is so amazing, so creative and so fascinating – that we all want to own it, to use it and to live our lives through it. It is enticingly addictive not because it is bad but because it is so good. Technology gives us a sense of control and security and allows us to present ourselves in a ‘polished’ way to others… although so often we are simply lonely and fragile people hiding behind our fingertips which tap out a binary coded message to our virtual friends in a nonexistent virtual world.
I am a keen advocate of the work of Dr Peter Kahn in the University of Washington, who coined the phrase ‘technological nature’ and whose work recommends us to give very careful consideration to the role of technology in our lives. Although Dr Kahn suggests that whilst we may express feelings and emotions towards technology, it is important to remember that there is no technological substitute for life and to be ‘alive’ means being in actual contact with other humans and other species. Moreover, we are nature and any attempt by us to disconnect from nature in any of its forms, is a rejection of our unique individuality within the interconnectedness of all other matter and beings. Not being outdoors enough and not being in communication with nature is a fractious denial of our very selves.
I sometimes ask people, (particularly people like myself who live in a busy inner city), where is your nearest tree? It is surprising the number of people who do not know the answer. This question may evoke a realisation which is often followed by a poignant sadness and/or feelings of loss. Thoughts about a tree often stir long hidden memories about a less busy time, a less built-up environment and perhaps a longing or even a grieving for a sense of community in a less isolated, gated concrete cage which has become home for many of us in this post celtic-tiger era.
Think about how we have constructed our urban areas. Here in Dublin we have run several harsh traffic filled lanes in, around and through the Christchurch area which is the very birthplace of our city. We negotiate and tolerate so many narrow miserable footpaths in our towns and cities, which require us to be constantly aware of not walking into an unforgiving stream of vehicles. This is no fit environment for human beings – at best it is a poor compromise and at worst it is a blind worship to an outmoded transportation model which is grossly unsustainable. In short, much of our urban public space is just not pleasant to be in. We did not evolve to breathe the exhaust fumes of cars.
Roger Ulrich’s work in 1984 remains some of the best known research on the positive results experienced by post operative patients in a hospital who enjoyed a view of trees outdoors as opposed to patients who did not recover as quickly nor as serenely, having been left to recuperate with a view of a brick wall. I have had an interest in architecture and planning all my life and also had the privilege to work closely in the past with people in transition from homelessness. This gave me an opportunity to learn so much from their experiences from having grown up and lived in built environments, which in their opinion (and mine), condemned them to a life of personal and communal pain and tragedy, leaving them bereft of any opportunity for effective healing. It is only with admirable effort that people recover from such an ‘unnatural’ disassociation with nature. Our public spaces, roads and streets in villages, towns and cities across Ireland must be beautiful, welcoming, fun and relaxed. They need to be full of trees and full of nature. There is a healing to be had in green spaces, spaces which are free from the noise and pollution of traffic as sadly all too often there is a strong correlation between social deprivation and a lack of tree-lined roads and green healthy parks and public spaces.
A major influence on my ecotherapy and ecopsychology work is the psychologist Theodore Roszak who reminded psychotherapists and other mental health providers to pay more attention to the relationship between a client and their immediate environment, particularly the alienation between what Roszak called the “…recently created urban psyche and the age-old natural environment”.
When it comes to improving our mental health, I believe that ‘simple stuff works’. Routine, healthy diet and exercise can all bring us a long way towards feeling better. So can being outdoors. The good news is that nature, despite our best/worst efforts as humans at times, is never too far away. For many people, just being in nature evokes inspiration and transformation. It’s no secret and it is increasingly accepted that there are numerous health benefits for mind, body and soul when we simply ‘take a walk’.
We all practice some form of ‘ecotherapy’ from time to time such as a walk in the park, gardening or growing our own fruit and vegetables. These are simple and effective ways to ensure more positive mental health. Recent research tells us that soil contains microbes which mirror the effect of ‘anti-depressant medication’ in the brain (without the side effects), but if you are an avid gardener, you are probably not too surprised by this.
As a counselling psychotherapist and a great lover of walking and being outdoors it was a very natural progression for me to integrate that which personally keeps me psychologically well, with the approach I offer people who wish to work on improving their low mood or increase their wellness levels. In offering counselling psychotherapy outdoors in healthy natural green spaces, nature becomes a co-therapist in the process, supporting the client with regulating their feelings and emotion.
And the simplest thing we can do and the ‘first step’ we can take to help improve our mental health is WALK,
- Exercise such as walking releases endorphins in our brains and this makes us feel better.
- Medical and General Practitioners advise us that walking outdoors in nature can support us with many health issues such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and aid us with post cancer fatigue.
- Even leisurely walking outdoors improves our mood, self- esteem, and increases our motivation.
- When we walk in sunshine – we absorb Vitamin D and this helps us to reduce our levels of depression/low mood.
- When we walk outdoors in nature it can inspire and support us to grow, heal and learn, develop a sense of belonging, whilst restoring our self acceptance.
- After walking outdoors for even a short time – we are less likely to feel or tell ourselves we are ‘stuck’.
- Walking outdoors is good for the planet. Ecotherapy and ecopsychology are based on the assumption that as humans we have an innate instinct to connect emotionally with nature. In doing so we tend to care more for nature and become more aware of the poor treatment our planet receives from humankind. This reduces defence mechanisms such as avoidance and denial allowing us to move into a more accepting, caring and centred place.
And remember being outdoors is free.
It does not, nor should not cost you a penny to go for a walk. If you are serious about reconnecting with nature, your ‘first step outdoors’ should not necessarily be to a shopping centre. And if you find yourself doing so, gently ask yourself why you are doing this it may help you to become more aware of some behaviours which may not be helping you. Of course I would advocate having suitable clothing and footwear, but the minute you find yourself ‘buying the look’ – bring yourself back to reality. I find that most people who enjoy the Walk Inniú outdoor ecotherapy workshops (Ecotherapy Hedge School / Walk and Talk’s etc) are generally a very relaxed bunch and place far more emphasis in being outdoors in nature rather than indoors choosing gadgets and expensive clothing.
Sometimes the things we own can end up owning us!
If the term ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ is evoking a feeling that you may not be in connection with wild spaces and natural surroundings as much as you would like then the antidote is very simple – you need a regular dose of what Louv refers to as ‘Vitamin N’ – that’s right N for Nature.
How to begin your Ecotherapy and take your dose of ‘Vitamin N’
- Take a step, a step anywhere outdoors – your garden, your local park, your street or road…and then take another and another and another and hey presto… you are walking outdoors.
- Try to walk in ‘wild’ places from time to time. Perhaps along a rugged coastline, a mountain with native trees or on a bog. Bogs make exceptionally interesting diverse places to visit. (Do take care and follow practical guidelines, seeking landowner’s permission if necessary when walking in wild places).
- Remember you don’t need your car keys to go for a walk – Discover and become aware of the nature that is in your local environment. Nature is found not only in our green Irish glens and majestic mountains but is also the struggling seedling which dares to poke its head up through the cracks in our city streets.
- Sanitise your walk. Unplug and switch off (earphones, smart phones etc). Ask yourself if you really need yet another digital image of a sunset or a flower or a rabbit. Leave tweeting to the birds not to your phone.
- Become as mindful as you can. Feel the breeze on your cheek, notice the heat of the sun, check in with your breathing and be present to the nature that surrounds you.
All my life I have benefited from the healing affects of nature and being outdoors. Having been fortunate enough to grow up in the west of Ireland and being no stranger to the natural wildness of the landscape, I developed a deep appreciation of the connection we can feel as human beings to a space and place. Having now lived in inner city Dublin for most of my life, some years ago I became aware of a growing disconnection with nature which created a personal unease, an unease that cleared the more I supported myself through engaging in ecotherapeutic activities.
I believe that Ireland is incredibly well suited to providing ecotherapy and ecopsychology, as we all have ready access to open countryside through trails, walks, mountain paths and a very long winding sea shore. Our nearest neighbours in the UK are ahead of the ball to the extent that many GP’s in the UK will prescribe you a course of ecotherapy and it is widely respected and recognised by the NHS as an efficacious and cost effective approach for supporting people in need. And as a ‘bloke’ I also recognise the cultural and stereotypical stigma that many of us Irish men feel (both real and imagined) when it comes to getting help.
Finally, climate change is the number one challenge of our time but it is often met by ‘avoidance, denial and projection’. However, us psychotherapists are trained to work with these ‘all-too-human’ defensive behaviours and I believe that by integrating growth, healing and learning in a more ‘eco – centric’ approach, it is possible to offer people a more positive and cohesive path towards better mental health with increased happiness and wellness.
The positive side-effect of ecotherapy is that when we truly nurture ourselves, we become better able and more likely to nurture our planet.
If you wish to learn more about David Staunton, Walk Inniú – Counselling Psychotherapy Outdoors or the introductory ‘Ecotherapy Hedge School Workshops’ feel free to check out www.walkinniu.ie , follow him on twitter @Walkinniu or contact David directly at 086 033 99 33 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org