I have felt the healing power of the outdoors at many times in my life and have written about this from various angles in previous blog posts (please check out In The End or Climbing Out). When my Grandma died I headed for the hills the next day and after my Dad’s death I found solace and calm in the mountains. I have sat on rocky outcrops to reflect on tricky decisions and gone for long walks with friends to help them through challenging times in their lives. I am a strong believer that the natural environment can help to centre you at challenging times and the concept of outdoor therapy is now widely recognised by professionals.
I am certainly no expert on this subject and a Google search reveals that there are a host of ways out there for people to potentially benefit from the therapeutic gains the outdoor environment can offer. Outdoor Therapy, Adventure Therapy and Wilderness Therapy all coexist as variations available to individuals and all appear to offer something significant, but here I am really just aiming to draw on my personal experience to suggest that getting outside in any form has significant benefits for us all.
It is only recently that I have given particular thought to how I have subconsciously chosen to seek out my own version of Outdoor Therapy over these many decades. It wasn’t something I did deliberately and that is perhaps the point. From my early days of being introduced to outdoor adventure in the Scouts I have been aware that this environment enriches and progresses me, and so I naturally am drawn here at challenging times too. Those advocating Outdoor Therapy would suggest that gaining the most of these benefits needs us to make a practice of it - the outdoors shouldn’t be something you go and do but should be a part of who you are.
The concept of Outdoor Therapy, in whatever form, is based on a holistic approach to health based around the well known mind-body-spirit concept. The concept, put very simply, is that our well being comes not just from one aspect - our physical health is affected by our mental and spiritual health and vice versa. We are all more than just our thoughts as we are also our bodies and spirits and we need to look after all three.
This concept has been known for thousands of years. Traditional Chinese culture talks of a life force called ‘Qi’ and the belief of Ancient Greek medicine suggested illness is the result of an imbalance with nature. You’ll find the same beliefs at play if you look at ancient India or the practices of Native Americans. It even plays a significant part in modern traditional medicine. Doctors are now well practiced at asking people whether they are stressed when they present with some physical ailments and counsellors know that people weighed down by negative emotions often become sick.
So, if you have stuck with me so far the obvious question is how we can channel the natural environment to help maximise this mind-body-spirit connection? Here are some ideas that I have tried myself and really believe to work. They are just simple things that work for me and I hope you find them useful too. Again, just to be clear, I am certainly no expert!
Sometimes I find it is good to be silent. To head out alone in the outdoors and speak to no one. I find that being quiet can enhance your senses and focus you on what is around you. Of course, you may be focussed on things that are running through your head, but at least you haven’t got the many usual distractions to pull you off track.
I find other forms of sensory deprivation can work in a similar way. Try heading somewhere quiet, lay yourself down on the ground and close your eyes. You’ll be amazed when you hear that Meadow Pippit you hadn’t noticed before or the breeze swaying the leaves in the nearby tree. It is a great way to raise our awareness of the natural environment and to raise body awareness.
Staying out overnight can also be a great resource. I find a great tranquility on an overnight bivvy or even when you are tucked up in a tent. It can really connect you. I actually prefer to do this in places where I don’t have a phone signal to distract me and I am absorbed in the simplicity of the situation and managing my own needs.
Time alone is great, but sometimes there is a lot to be gained by heading into the outdoors with others. I love walking with people as there is something special to be enjoyed when you walk alongside someone. A friend of mine used to always take interviewees out for a walk as part of the selection process for the business she managed. She felt that people were a lot less anxious once you shared some steps with them and the shared experience also helped her understanding of what made them tick.
I sometimes like to walk along with others silently (easier if you know them well enough to ask them to be quiet!). You are sharing the experience and yet still absorbing the surroundings rather than getting distracted by chat.
I am a mountain man but really find other aspects of the outdoors can have incredible effects on me too. If I stop and sit by a mountain stream the flow of water can be a very powerful calmer and being in or on water can be very beneficial. Hannah Maia shared her beautiful multi award winning film ‘My Big White Thighs and Me’ at recent film festivals (you can catch the trailer for it here) and it is a powerful example of how changes she made impacted her mental and physical wellbeing. I won’t give too much away but Hannah began wild swimming after a miscarriage and she began to realise the healing and life enhancing effects of her new passion.
I have had similar spiritual experiences whilst out on a stand up paddle board and the same can be true when out on skis, two wheels or in the air. You can vary the environment or mode of travel and ultimately have the same results.
There can also be something very powerful about being out after dark. Darkness taps into our primitive fears and yet it can be a special and connecting experience. I love being in remote areas on cloudless nights when the twinkling stars are a visual feast, but also love those moisture laden evenings when the air dampens your face. I sometimes head somewhere away from light pollution and turn my head torch off. The darkness can be intimidating but you soon realise there is nothing to fear and everything to gain as you start to notice previously unnoticed things around you.
I also like sitting around a fire in darkness. Fires have a life to them which I find very calming and I love to stare at the flickering and spitting flames just as the noises a lively fire makes offers a lovely accompaniment to a peaceful evening. It is great at any time, but maybe even better when the backdrop is darkness.
Being out on a windy night can feel wonderful. I sometimes wrap up warm and head to a hilltop on a breezy night as the sharp wind on the face feels truly invigorating. Similarly, sitting among trees as the wind whistles gently through the branches or the rustling leaves of autumn flutter past feels incredibly connecting. Infact, any wild weather is worth experiencing - the raindrops on your face or snow flakes settling on your nose as you experience nature at its rawest.
Getting even closer to nature is also a well tried type of outdoor therapy. I once, for a simple example, had the magical experience of being smothered in warm mud on the shores of the Dead Sea and others finding laying in wet leaves or hugging a tree brings them a feeling of contentment. It is about finding what works for you and sometimes this comes from experimenting.
A lot of things described above aren’t particularly physically challenging and yet some might find it is when pushing their physical boundaries might be when they feel most content. We have probably all felt that delicious contentment as you sit reflecting on a tough hill day - your body is tired and yet that special feeling of being relaxed and calm is very special.
So, all I am trying to say is making the outdoors a regular part of my life has helped me in difficult times and still helps me even when things are going well - connecting with nature in any form has so many benefits and it is a simple and accessible way to enrich that mind-body-spirit equation. I hope to meet you on a windswept hill in the dark or swimming in that mountain lochan sometime soon!
Posted by Paul