Rediscovering Nature in 2011

MANY of our New Year resolutions will probably not last more than a few weeks.

However, there is one resolution that we should all make to deal with the stress, anxiety and depression that inevitably come with economic uncertainty.

This is to enjoy nature more. After all, our natural environment is not only free but it is good for our health too.

Like other animals that inhabit the planet, we are intimately connected with, embedded in, and inseparable from nature. We have an innate emotional and physical dependency on our natural environment.

Unfortunately, we seemed to have forgotten this basic tenet of our existence as we have developed our industrial and globalised society.

We are increasingly replacing nature with artificial man-made creations, which has led some thinkers to suggest that our separation from the natural world is having a negative impact on our overall mental health and wellbeing.

Depression affects approximately 121 million people worldwide. The World Health Organization predicts depression will be the second greatest cause of ill health globally by 2020. In the UK depression affects one in 10 people each year, with more than half of those experiencing more than one episode.

According to a 2007 national mental health survey, the percentage of people with a “common mental disorder” that causes marked emotional distress and interferes with daily function increased from 15.5 per cent in 1993 to 17.6 per cent in 2007.

This is approximately an additional million extra unhappy people. The largest increase was observed in women aged 45-64 whose rate rose by a fifth, while people living in low- income households were more likely to have a common mental disorder than those living in high-income households.

In 2008, there were 2.1 million more prescriptions of antidepressants in England than in 2007, leading to concerns that doctors are increasingly supplying the drugs as a “quick fix” without attempting to address the underlying cause of the problems.

In total, 36 million prescriptions were given out, an increase of 24 per cent over a five year period. The use of anti-depressants such as Prozac or sessions of cognitive therapy are increasingly seen as failing to deal with the root cause of many modern day mental health problems.

One approach that has been developed to deal with the stresses and strains of modern living is ‘Ecotherapy’, which can be defined as healing and growth nurtured by healthy interaction with the earth. It addresses common difficulties such as anxiety, depression and stress using nature-based methods.

Cynics will probably see these methods used to connect with nature as New Age mumbo jumbo, as they include working with plants and animals, detaching oneself from rigid artificial time schedules, changing home and working environments, dream therapy and wilderness retreats.

However, we should not forget that the belief that the natural environment is good for our mental and physical health is nothing new. Many medical professions, including Florence Nightingale, encouraged people to go the country to convalesce. The natural environment is seen as being a beneficial restorative environment that enhances mental energies and reduces stress.

Research has shown that prisoners whose cells overlooked farmland and trees had 24 per cent fewer sick visits than those in cells facing the prison yard. A 10-year comparative study of post-operative patients found hospital stay for patients with tree views was significantly shorter and patients required fewer painkillers and used less medication.

A study by the mental health charity, Mind, found that 90 per cent of people who took part in Mind green exercise activities said that the combination of nature and exercise is most important in determining how they feel.

A total of 71 per cent of respondents reported decreased levels of depression following a green walk compared to increased feelings of depression following an indoor shopping centre walk that was experienced by 22 per cent of respondents.

One way to deal with the stresses that lie ahead in 2011 is to make the most of nature. This requires replacing retail therapy with ecotherapy and the city gym with the green gym. We should abandon the characterless shopping centres, windowless gyms for natural vegetation and attractive landscapes.

We should enjoy gardening, cycling and walking more. In particular, making the most of those parks, green fields and lanes in our local neighbourhood we have passed many times but never bothered to explore.

In a world that focuses on “doing” rather than “being”, it is easy not to find the time to nurture our spirit and feed our soul. Reconnecting with nature in the New Year could just be the pathway that guarantees a fitter, happier and more prosperous 2011.

© Gary Haq 2011

Photo credits: Shutterstock

Ecotherapy – Healing the Natural Way

OUR disconnection from nature is having a profound affect on our physical and mental well-being. Can Ecotherapy enable us reconnect with nature and find happiness?

OUR disconnection from nature is having a profound affect on our physical and mental well-being. Can ecotherapy enable us to reconnect with nature and find happiness?

As a species we are intimately connected with, embedded in, and inseparable from nature. We have an innate emotional and physical dependency on our natural environment. With our “ecological unconscious” considered to be the foundation of our sanity.

As we have developed into an industrial and globalised society we have increasingly replaced nature and all things natural with artificial man-made creations. There is increasing to evidence suggest that this is having a negative impact on our overall mental health and well-being. Depression affects about 121 million people worldwide. The World Health Organization predicts depression will be the second greatest cause of ill health globally by 2020.

In the UK depression affects one in 10 people each year, with more than half of those experiencing more than one episode. According to official statistics, the percentage of people with a “common mental disorder” increased from 15.5% in 1993 to 17.6% in 2007. This is about an additional million extra unhappy people.

In 2008 in England there were 2.1 million more prescriptions of antidepressants than in 2007, leading to concerns that doctors are increasingly supplying the drugs as a “quick fix” without attempting to address the underlying cause of the problems. In total, 36 million prescriptions were given out, an increase of 24% over the past five years.

A survey by The Mental Health Foundation shows that three quarters of UK family doctors have prescribed anti-depressants even though they think another treatment would have been more effective. The Foundation advocates mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) which halves the risk of further bouts of depression.

The use of anti-depressants such as Prozac or sessions of cognitive therapy are increasingly seen as failing to deal with the root cause of many mental health problems – our dysfuctional and unnatural way of life. Ecotherapy has been developed to respond to this problem.

Ecotherapy can be defined as healing and growth nurtured by healthy interaction with the earth. It is considered to be a form of applied Ecopsychology. Ecotherapists address common difficulties such as anxiety, depression and stress using nature-based methods to enhance physical and mental healing.

Ecotherapeutic methods include reconnecting with nature and ones own body, working with plants and animals, voluntary simplicity, detaching from rigid artificial time schedules, changing home and working environments, dream therapy focusing on nature and wilderness retreats.

A book published by the Sierra Club entitled Ecotherapy – Healing with Nature in Mind edited by Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist examines the background, methods and practices of ecotherapy. It covers the practice form working from both inside and outside, using community as ecotherapy as well as ecospirituality. The book is a companion to the earlier Sierra Club publication on Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind edited by Theordore Roszak et al. Both books provide a valuable introduction to the theory of ecopsychology and the practice of ecotherapy.

The belief that the natural environment is good for our mental and physical well-being is not new. Many medical professions including Florence Nightingale encouraged people to go the country to convalesce. The natural environment is seen as being beneficial – a “restorative environment” – which enhances mental energies and reduces stress. Research has show that prisoners whose cells overlooked farmland and trees had 24 per cent fewer sick visits than those in cells facing the prison yard. A ten-year comparative study of post-operative patients found hospital stay for patients with tree views was significantly shorter, they required fewer painkillers, used less medication, and nursing staff reported fewer negative evaluation comments in the medical record.

A study by the mental health charity, Mind, found that 90 per cent of people who took part in Mind green exercise activities said that the combination of nature and exercise is most important in determining how they feel. A total of 71 per cent of respondents reported decreased levels of depression following a green walk compared to increased feelings of depression following an indoor shopping centre walk which was experienced by 22 per cent of respondents while 33 per cent of people expressed no change in their level of depression.

In our Western, industrialised and individualistic culture we often see ourselves separate and distinct from the natural world around us. If we are to address the cause of the current environmental crisis and the impact it is having on our physical and mental well-being then we need to develop a sense of connectedness with nature.

Ecotherapy provides the natural way to healing mind and will help us rediscover our ecological roots. That is why the recommendations in Mind’s Green Agenda for Mental Health calling for ecotherapy to be become a clinically valid treatment option for mental distress should be adopted before it is too late.

© Gary Haq 2010
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Understanding Our EcoPsychology

THE root of the Global Environmental Crisis lies in our relationship with nature. If we are to avoid ecological suicide then we need to rediscover our ecological unconscious.

garyhaqTHE root of the Global Environmental Crisis lies in our relationship with nature. If we are to avoid ecological suicide then we need to rediscover our ecological unconscious.

We have become increasingly disconnected from the natural world on which we are dependent for our survival. Our capitalistic economic model based on continual growth has not only created the ecological crisis but has actively molded consumer demand. As consumers we are no longer in control as tastes and demands are determined by industry and shaped by advertising, which generate false needs.

Our behaviour is continuously encouraged and perpetuated by “perverse” economic incentive structures, media images, institutional barriers, inequalities in access, where status and wealth is reflected in how much we can consume. Our consumption of goods such as the fastest car, latest fashion, the newest gadget is one of the main ways of expressing our identify in the modern world

ad2Human nature has become more consumerist and individualistic decreasing our understanding of the links between social and natural systems. This has lead to the development of a new form of narcissistic self. Psychoanalytical theory suggests that narcissism is an extreme form of individualism. It is a phenomenon from childhood, which means that the world will provide everything we need if we make enough commotion. Things that are out of sight such as food production, waste and environmental degradation are firmly out of the mind.

As we have developed we have becoming increasingly disconnected from nature. The majority of the people living in the developed world have become disengaged from the immediate materials provided by nature that are needed for survival. An increasing amount of the food and raw materials we consume is transported from around the world rather than made and used locally. This disconnection from the natural environment has resulted in a lack of understanding of the environment and ecological systems of which we are a part.

images-6We no longer have a direct understanding of economic activity, consumption and the byproducts of our activities. The waste we generate is an intangible byproduct and has an impact far away from the point of consumption. This detachment has been facilitated by technology. Fridgeration techniques and intensive farming have replaced our understanding of the way things grow and the seasons. This separation leads to a lack of understanding of nature (e.g. our knowledge of food now comes form reading labels on packets and making uniformed judgements) about alternatives and can lead to fear (e.g. food scares). Knowledge based on direct experience has been replaced by knowledge produced by scientists (abstract systems) in laboratories. This has in some cases led to mistrust of science due to vested interest and changes based on new developments.

bundle2A wide variety of ancient and modern cultures have histories of embracing nature such as aboriginal, pagan and Hindu cultures, and shamanism. Where self-identity becomes entwined with nature, so much that loss of sacred places is devastating to indigenous people. In contrast, industrial society has repressed what Theodore Roszak has called our “ecological unconscious”.

If we are to reconnect with nature and restore environmental harmony then we need to rediscover our ecological unconscious that lies at the core of our psyche. This requires healing the fundamental gap between the recently created industrial psyche and the age-old natural environment. This involves re-evaluating character traits which have driven us to dominate nature as if it were an alien and rightless realm as well as questioning the sanity of the size and extent of urban-industrial culture.

images-4Reconnecting with nature via decentralised food production and community nature projects and projects that promote personal empowerment are likely to nourish our “ecological ego”. In contrast, large-scale projects that dominate suppress the individual undermines the ecological ego. Roszak claims as our ecological ego matures towards a sense of ethical responsibility to the planet that is as vividly experienced as our ethical responsibility to other people, it will weave this responsibility into the fabric of social relations and political decisions.

When the needs of the planet have become the needs of the person, the rights of the person have become the rights of the planet then we will have finally rediscovered our ecological unconscious and understood our ecopsychology.

REFERENCES
Ecopsychology
The Voice of the Earth

© Gary Haq 2009