I have had the pleasure of exploring the outside world since I was a young girl. Whether it was hiking or long backpacking trips with our pet llamas, Sierra Nevada and White Cloud, I always felt at ease when I was exploring the outdoors. I did not know why I was always that weird kid who would rather run outside and go on a camping trip than play dress up and have tea parties at school, but that was who I was. I grew up in a divorced family and with the constant heartbreak that comes from divorce and brokenness, I found serenity in the wilderness. Fast-forward 20 years later and here I am, still in love with nature. The difference is now I have a thorough understanding of why I escaped into nature as a child and why I continue to seek out the most thrilling outdoor adventures as a young woman; nature is my therapy to combat all of my emotional demons. As a child, I may have been running away from the emotional trauma I endured from my parents divorce and although I still carry some of that with me today; I have learned that I am one of the strongest humans I know for what I endured in my life. From childhood trauma to abusive relationships in adulthood, I am living proof that you can overcome any challenge you are faced. I have learned that Mother Nature was my therapist since my early childhood and today I continue to cope with my hardships, emotional trauma and everyday stressors through letting it all go while I am out running on a trail overlooking the ocean, climbing some of the tallest mountains in the world or simply playing fetch with my dog, Moo. As a young girl, I did not know what therapy was or how nature contributed to the release of dopamine in our brains; but I knew there was something magical about being outside, something so freeing that I could not explain.
Opting outside can help combat depression
A few years ago, many outdoor campaigns were started such as #optoutside by REI which supports going into the outdoors during the holiday season instead of being sucked into the consumer world of Black Friday. This campaign has now reached millions of people and is just one example of how we can put away our superficial happiness and seek therapy from nature. As a society, we get drawn into social media, the fear of missing out, the Hollywood scene and we spend so much time and effort on our own image when in reality, this underlying peer pressure is a trigger for mental illness. With many outdoors campaigns and evidence-based studies of how nature can combat mental illness and depression, I was very excited to see the potential this can have on the mental health world. In fact, Stanford University released a study in 2015 confirming that opting outside can have a positive impact on mental health.
“Specifically, the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to participants who walked in a high-traffic urban setting, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression. ‘These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world,’ said co-author Gretchen Daily, the Bing Professor in Environmental Science and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. ‘Our findings can help inform the growing movement worldwide to make cities more livable, and to make nature more accessible to all who live in them.’”
Mental illness in the United States
Approximately 42.5 million adults (18.2 percent of the total population) in the United States endure a mental health disorder, most commonly depression and anxiety. Mental health disorders can lead to physical illness, financial burdens, broken relationships, emotional anguish, substance abuse and even suicide without the proper treatment. Many treatments for mental illness include psychotherapy and medications such as antidepressants. Overall the goals of these treatments is help identify underlying triggers, establish positive coping skills and adjust the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain in order to obtain a healthy balance, however alternate therapies such as exercise and getting out in nature have also been shown to release serotonin and dopamine in the brain, potentially creating a state of happiness.
Taking a moment to step outdoors, smell the roses, feel the sand under your toes and watch a sunset can be a life changing event. Creating this space for you and making it a part of your everyday lifestyle can truly be life changing. I urge you to step outside and explore.
Kristen Fuller M.D. is a clinical mental health writer for Center For Discovery.