The Link - Nature Deficit and Mental Health Disorders

In this blog, I will be referring to the LINK as the connection between human being's diminishing connection with nature and the rise of mental health issues. The  Biophilia hypothesis, is the idea that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. The term biophilia was used by German-born American psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), which described biophilia as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive.” The term was later used by American biologist Edward O. Wilson in his work Biophilia (1984), which proposed that the tendency of humans to focus on and to affiliate with nature and other life-forms has, in part, a genetic basis.  This blog is about my own personal opinions on the link. References will be made to various articles which will be listed.  I am curious to know, do you believe in the Biophilia hyposthesis - that a connection to nature is essential for our mental wellbeing?

Nature In My Life

I grew up around nature and the outdoors. My parents instilled the value of appreciating nature from a very young age. We went rafting, hiking, to the beach, and the desert. We swam near waterfalls, climbed rocks, and swung on tree branches. My parents let us play freely and nature was our playground. To this day, I crave my getaways to the outdoors so I can gaze in wonder at the animals, trees, and life that teems ever so quietly away from the city. In nature, I can play and let out the child in me. I feel at one with all the creations of the earth and that makes me feel complete.

My experience with nature is part of the evidence I use to support the Biophilia Hypothesis.  Although there may not be much research yet to support it, the evidence that nature supports mental health is all around us. In hospitals, the wall paintings are usually of oceans or natural places, with soft greens and blues. Beautiful landscaping raises the cost of property. Watering the plants and tending to the garden is soothing and grounding. According to quantum theory and systems theory, everything exists in relationships from the air we breathe, to the most inanimate object to cycles of weather. It is commonly understood that the isolation from other human beings leads to depression. Perhaps our separation from the rhythms of nature does too.   It is important to note that those living in isolated rural areas, though they may be more natural settings, may experience more isolation from other humans.

 Moving to Cities

“Meeting our needs in the course of survival has shaped the types of landscapes which we prefer and how we react to things within it” (Wichrowski 2012.) Today we are meeting our survival needs in new ways. Since industrialization, modern metropolitan landscapes have attracted the populous. The city offers jobs, accessible amenities, socialization and nightlife, all which make for a more comfortable quality of life. Many people now see wilderness as threatening, because we no longer know how to navigate its risks: predators, bugs, difficult terrain, and getting lost to name a few. Many of the Grimm Fairytales written in the early 1800s (through a collection of oral legend passed down) depict the fear of that time among parents whose young children wondered out into the forest, sometimes never to return. Luckily today we have more and more enclosed green spaces like the national parks, beaches, and hiking trails which offer safety in the outdoors. Still, many people don’t take advantage of these recreational areas. A client recently stated to me, “I live right next to a park and don’t go there. I don’t know why.”

In the past, living in nature was a necessity to our survival. Today, we no longer need to farm on our own, follow the herds, or forage for food and medicine. Our resources go through many steps before reaching us as consumers. Ecotherapy is a resurgence or renaissance of our appreciation and connection to the natural world. I believe we are beginning to appreciate nature in a new way--for its psychological and spiritual healing properties.

The Link

The recent growth of children diagnosed with ADHD, depression and social and emotional regulatory disorders may be linked to the increasing lack of experience with nature, animals and decreased opportunity for physical activity. In the article Ecotherapy: A Counter to Societies Unhealthy Trend, Sackett examines how childhood obesity in low SES communities may be linked with a lack of exposure to outdoor green spaces. I am reminded of the classic movie, The Sandlot, where the towns’ boys meet at the park to play ball, unsupervised. Today many children only leave home after school if they are involved in an adult supervised activity. Youth no longer organize soccer games on their own as they did in the past. They are subject to whether the adults in their life are willing and able to pay for the league and drive them to the field. If their parents work long and grueling hours or cannot afford it, their kids stay home and entertained by electronic devises like the TV, game console, phone, and tablet.

The overuse or addiction to these electronics has consistently resurfaced as a topic of discussion with parents about their kids’ lack of motivation in school, lethargy, disrupted sleep, defiance, lack of socialization and even cyberbullying. Many parents are confronted with technology evolving faster than they can adapt to with new disciplinary techniques. Add to that the demands of work to support a higher cost of living. Though I have worked with parents that understand the importance of their children going outdoors, being active, and socializing with other kids. Sometimes their children refuse, demand to quit the sport or activity, and prefer to stay home and play on their device. Are they socially anxious? Addicted to convenience? Instant gratification? I have seen children 3 and 4 years old tantrum when they cannot have their parent’s phones to play with. Yet, there are still children I have worked with that burst with joy at the opportunity to go to the pool, park, and beach and that show less attachment to their electronics. With those children, I have observed less symptoms of depression and anxiety, increased compliance with parents, better physical fitness, and increased social skills.

Nature's Accessibility In Modern Society

There are many safe settings in which children can have contact with nature and animals. California offers the ocean, wetlands, and hiking trails. If people have access to the beach, they can enjoy the benefits of exercise, socializing, and the sun. Outdoor pools still provide the benefit of sun, being active, and at night star-gazing. There are parks, botanical gardens, and nature arboretums. Venture farther inland and Californians can enjoy the mountains for summer or winter sports like rock-climbing, hiking, skiing and snow-boarding. There are so many options available for free or little cost and open to the public. In addition, nature offers chance encounters with birds, lizards, bunnies, squirrels, fish, and the pets of other people. For a moment, these encounters provide us with an escape into the mysterious world that exists outside of our heads, and away from stress.

Aside from animals, other nature-inclusive aspects can be brought indoors. Activities include composting and tactile art projects like journey sticks and plant terrariums. I enjoy engaging children in planting flower seeds, attending to them each session with sun and water, and watching them blossom (a wonderful analogy to the client’s growth.) Many therapists design their offices with Zen themes by including green plants, photography and art with nature, and water fountains which set a peaceful ambience.

Animal Assisted Psychotherapy and Nature

Animal Assisted Psychotherapy is a discipline of its own and in many ways part of the Ecotherapy movement. The presence of an animal in therapy, aside from its many documented advantages, also introduces the natural world into the clinical setting. For example, cats with their mysterious behavior and fluid movements remind us of the African Savannah. Animals are an aspect of nature but unique in that they engage with us in relationships which allows for attachment work and in vivo interventions. They also provide the healing benefit of touch (which therapists may not be trained for).

Like Animal Assisted Psychotherapy, Ecotherapy allows for the use of analogy, i.e. Our earth comprises cycles of life which maintain balance. Nature is never rushed, yet accomplishes its’ goal. There are seasons and the storms eventually pass. etc. As with animals, we are called upon to nurture and care for our living earth. As we care for it, we learn to nurture aspects of ourselves which may have been neglected or harmed. There are lessons we can learn from both animals and our earth about how to be more virtuous and whole versions of ourselves. In some ways, Animal Assisted Psychotherapy falls under the umbrella of Ecotherapy which is a larger, all-encompassing field that brings us closer to the natural world.

Ecotherapy can incorporate AAP by observing wild animals, and AAP can incorporate ecotherapy by observing the nature of animals. When a bird visits her young in a nest, or a squirrel scratches his head, or a honeybee connects with a flower; animals can open the channels for discussion with our clients about the animal or client’s behavior, what motivates it, and his experience in the world. Both AAP and ecotherapy provide vast and rich opportunities for healing. Some interventions can be incorporated in the office setting where both the animal and human are safe and secure in a confidential environment. However, outdoor activities further enhance the therapy experience by enriching our connection to earth, with mindfulness and stimulating physical activity. If possible, the two fields can complement each other beautifully when they work in tandem.


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