I believe strongly in the concept of outdoor therapy. When my Grandma died I headed for the hills the next day. 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. I am a strong believer that the natural environment may help to centre you when you have lost control of other aspects of your life. The concept of outdoor therapy is now widely recognised by professionals.
The therapeutic gains of the outdoor environment
I am certainly no expert on this subject, but a Google search helps. It reveals there are a host of ways 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. All appear to offer something significant, but here I am really just aiming to draw on my personal experience. My experience suggests 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 chose to seek out my own version of Outdoor Therapy over these many decades. This wasn’t something I did consciously and that is perhaps the point. It stems from my early days of being introduced to outdoor adventure in the Scouts.
Even at a young age I became aware that this environment enriched and progressed me. I soon found myself naturally drawn there at challenging times too. Those advocating Outdoor Therapy would suggest that benefitting most from this will need to make a practice of it. The outdoors shouldn’t be something you go and do. It should become a part of who you are.
The concept of Outdoor Therapy, in whatever form, is based on a holistic approach to health. An approach 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 actually affected by our mental and spiritual health as well. To be healthy we must pay attention to all three aspects. We are all more than just our thoughts as we are also our bodies and spirits and we need to look after all three.
The power of Qi
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. Counsellors know that people weighed down by negative emotions often become sick.
Channeling the natural environment
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. 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. You can focus on what is around you. Of course, you may be focussed on things that are running through your head. At least you haven’t got the many usual distractions to pull you off track though.
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. That magical breeze swaying the leaves in the nearby tree. It is a great way to connect with the natural environment and to raise body awareness.
Staying out overnight can also be a great experience. I find a great tranquility on an overnight bivvy or 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. I am then 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 companions 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. She felt that people were a lot less anxious once you shared some steps with them. The shared experience also helped her understanding of what made them tick.
I sometimes like to walk along with others silently. This is 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.
The flow of water
I am a mountain man at heart, but still find other aspects of the outdoors can have incredible effects on me. If I stop and sit by a mountain stream the flow of water can be a very powerful calmer. Similarly, being in or on water can be very beneficial.
Hannah Maia’s beautiful multi award winning film ‘My Big White Thighs and Me’ is a powerful example of how changes she made impacted her mental and physical wellbeing. You can watch it here. I won’t give too much away but Hannah began wild swimming after a miscarriage and came to realise the healing effects of her new passion.
I have had similar spiritual experiences whilst out on a stand up paddle board. 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. Those moisture laden evenings when the air dampens your face are also a treat .
Sometimes I head somewhere away from light pollution and turn my head torch off. The darkness can initially be intimidating but stick with it. You soon realise there is nothing to fear and everything to gain. It is amazing how you start to notice previously unnoticed things around you.
I like sitting around a fire in darkness too. Fires have a life to them which I find very calming and I love to stare at the flickering and spitting flames. The noises a lively fire makes also offer a lovely accompaniment to a peaceful evening.
A hilltop on a breezy night
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 your 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, talking of weather, any wild weather may be worth experiencing. The raindrops on your face or snow flakes settling on your nose as you experience nature at its rawest.
The shores of the dead sea
Getting even closer to nature is also a well tried form of outdoor therapy. For a simple example, I once had the magical experience of being smothered in warm mud on the shores of the Dead Sea. 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. Some might find it is when pushing their physical boundaries that they feel most content or at peace. We have probably all felt that delicious contentment as you sit reflecting on a tough hill day. Your body is tired and yet you often get that special feeling of being relaxed and calm.
The mind body spirit link
So, all I am trying to say is making the outdoors a regular part of my life has helped me in difficult times. It has also helped me when things are going well. Connecting with nature in any form has so many benefits and it’s an accessible way to enrich that mind-body-spirit link. I hope to meet you on a windswept hill in the dark or swimming in that mountain lochan sometime soon!
If you’ve found this article useful please also have a read of our blog post In The End. We think you’ll enjoy that too.