An Important Element in Successful Treatment

It has long been clear that exercise and a healthy diet are not only vital for physical health, but for mental health as well. It has recently become clear, in part because of the clinical research that I have done, that taking in a healthy dose of Nature is also essential for many individuals’ development and well-being. I learned this by listening to my patients. This is the subject of the 2009 award-winning DVD I filmed and produced: HUMAN/NATURE.

[If you want to delve further into this subject, I can make a copy of HUMAN/NATURE available to you. I have donated it to public and private high schools, showed it at meetings of the Sierra Club, and it was featured in a film festival.]

One patient, now a very successful teacher, helped me understand this by describing his feeling so discouraged as a child that he gave up the hope of ever having an acceptable life. So one day he wandered away from school deep into the adjacent woods with the intent of dying there. But he described having an epiphany when a shaft of sunlight shone through the dense woods and fell like a spotlight on a very beautiful flower. It was as though Nature was telling him that a world with such beauty offered hope for his doing better. That was enough for him to redouble his efforts to make friends, to seek psychotherapy and to stay with it over the long haul. It eventually led him to a very satisfying career and a rewarding marriage. He felt that Nature had saved his life.

Over the years I had treated a number of patients who had grown up with few positive relationships with family or friends. They endured negligence and abuse. They had the kind of grim childhoods which are textbook examples of individuals who go on to have grim, adult lives with debilitating depressions, making work and relationships marginal. Yet I found that a group of these individuals had done much better. Even though they needed therapy, it was usually to further improve fairly good job performance and relationships. And these folks made excellent progress in their treatments.

In collating their histories, I found that they had only one element in common: a lifelong immersion in Nature. Each had spent a great deal of time in childhood-and continuing into adult life-hiking in the countryside near their homes, fishing, climbing, and skiing. This common element appears to be linked with the finding of their having grown up more successfully than individuals with comparably grim childhoods who had not done well in adulthood and whose therapies were less successful. Nature seemed to have acted as a substitute for close childhood relationships, making their lives and their future prospects much better.

I researched the role of exposure to Nature in psychotherapy in the medical literature. I found that the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung and the British psychoanalyst W.D. Winnicott had found Nature to be very important. A group of American psychologists called Ecopsychologists had also written at length about Nature’s benefit.

As I thought about it, I realized that the weekend trips and longer vacations that I, many of my friends, and some of my patients were taking, were doing more for us than I had given them credit for. I had thought of them as just “getaways,” but I could now see that they better thought of as “get tos,” in that Nature itself was the goal, not just getting away from everyday stresses. We returned from these Nature “treatments” feeling centered; we came back feeling really together again.

When moving home to Colorado from years of teaching medicine in San Francisco, even before I had found a home in Colorado Springs, I secured a cabin in the Colorado woods on a trout stream. My wife, Rebecca, and I have taken in Nature through our travels in New England, the Canadian Maritime Provinces, Costa Rica, and in our home in the Ozarks. Though I like big cities and have lived in several, I have never again visited a city, except to present papers in a psychiatry seminar. Cities were not centering for me.

When I had integrated these realizations, I began recommending that my patients enhance their therapy-and their lives afterward-with their own exposure to Nature. When I left Colorado Springs, I had opened a practice serving the town adjacent to that cabin. I demonstrated how important I think Nature is to emotional health by preparing a place beside the stream to see patients-in seats carved from tree trunks. I gave all patients the choice of being treated inside the cabin or by the stream. Once they had tried being seen outside, nearly all wanted to be seen there, as long as the weather permitted.

When I hear forecasts that in the next few decades, an increasingly larger part of the world’s population will be living in cities, I worry that the people who live there will find it much harder to have that exposure to Nature which is so vital for so many people. To bring Nature to the Human Spirit.

© 2024 - GERALD S. STEIN, M.D.