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Can Nature Help Heal Trauma?

22 August 2022

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There are lots of benefits to spending time outdoors. It’s great for your mood, boosts empathy, lowers stress, improves attention span and can reduce the risk for psychiatric disorders. But can it help you work through trauma? We can say a cautious ‘probably,’ in certain situations and sometimes when a ‘nature cure’ is undertaken in combination with other treatments. Nature can, without a doubt, make us feel better, but that’s much different than healing a serious mental illness or trauma. 

Before we dive in and investigate whether being outdoors and experiencing nature can help heal trauma, let’s be clear about a couple of things. Recovering from trauma is not a simple undertaking. People who are dealing with the effects of trauma often benefit from therapy sessions with a counselor and/or medication. Trauma-focused therapy is a specific discipline built on the understanding of how traumatic events and experiences can affect a person’s emotional, mental and physical health and well-being. 

What is trauma?

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer-term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.

Examples of trauma-inducing events include the death of a loved one, divorce or a breakup, emotional or physical abuse, experiencing a natural disaster like a tornado, being in a car crash, military deployment, automobile or plane crashes. When you feel emotionally or mentally hurt by something that happens, that’s trauma. It can be short-lived, or it can take years to work through.   

There are three main categories of trauma.

  • Acute trauma results from a single event or incident.
  • Chronic trauma is prolonged and/or repeated events, as in the case of domestic abuse or violence.
  • Complex trauma happens with exposure to multiple, varied traumatic events causing an ongoing sense of horror, helplessness or fear over a period of time.

People who are dealing with traumatic experiences can feel unsafe in their bodies and in their relationships with others. With appropriate therapy, regaining a sense of safety or trust can take days or weeks for acutely traumatized individuals. For individuals who have experienced ongoing/chronic abuse, it can take years or longer. 

To best recover from trauma, which is considered to be a dissociative disorder, people need to connect with others. Trauma’s effects do not generally improve in isolation. It’s important to care for yourself and others who have experienced trauma. Without care, unresolved trauma can cause physical ailments such as high blood pressure, stroke or heart attack. Unresolved trauma also put people at higher risk for developing depression, anxiety or PTSD. 

If you’ve been working on your own to get past a trauma, congratulations. That takes fortitude. If a few months have passed, though, seek professional help from a trauma expert.

How can nature help trauma?

Let’s start by defining ‘nature’ for our purposes. Nature can mean woodland or forest, green spaces like parks, beaches, wetlands or snowy mountains. Your dog, bird, fish or cat counts as nature. It can also mean trees on a city sidewalk, your yard or even a window box or indoor potted plant. All of it counts as nature. 

There’s a therapy modality known as ecotherapy, nature therapy or green therapy. A scholar named Theodore Roszak, who studied American counter-culture of the 1960s, wrote novels, received a Ph.D. in history from Princeton and taught at Stanford University, among other places, came up with a concept he called ‘ecopsychology.’

Ecopsychology views the psychological wellness of human beings as being connected to the natural world, AKA ecology. He’s not the only one who believes well-being can be improved with intentional interaction with nature. Before Roszak, the concept of ecopsychology began with a fellow named Robert Greenway, whose idea was that “the mind is nature, and nature, the mind.” To bring these concepts closer to home, think about it: who among us doesn’t feel a little bit better sitting under a shade tree, watching the ocean lap the shore or even just watching the birds in the backyard? 

Here are a few ways to dip your toe into ecotherapy:

Grounding.  Also called ‘earthing,’ this practice means physically connecting to the Earth. Walking barefoot, for example. Earthing helps you make contact with the electrons on Earth’s surface. A study released by the NIH says this: Multi-disciplinary research has revealed that electrically conductive contact of the human body with the surface of the Earth (grounding or earthing) produces intriguing effects on physiology and health. Such effects relate to inflammation, immune responses, wound healing, and prevention and treatment of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. 

There’s more. Other studies suggest that grounding can improve sleep, reduce stress, diminish pain, reduce healing time and normalize our day-night cortisol rhythm. You can try earthing by doing anything that allows your body to connect with the ground, like standing barefoot or lying in the grass, swimming or taking a bath, gardening or using a grounding mat indoors.

Horticultural therapy (HT). HT is an ancient practice, defined as the use of plant-based activity and plants for healing and rehabilitation. In the early 19th century, a physician named Dr. Benjamin Rush, considered to be the first psychiatrist and who also (fun fact) was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, observed and charted the benefits patients experienced from working with plants. Anyone can use this mode of therapy, because plants don’t discriminate. They’ll respond to anyone caring for them regardless of the person’s abilities, mental state, intellect or age. Give it a go. Pull a few weeds, plant something pleasing or create a ritual around caring for house plants.  

Animal assisted therapies (AAT) are mental health care modalities that bring animals into the picture. Animals, such as therapy dogs, can bring out nurturing emotions in people, and caring for another being is something that many people seeking help respond well to. Positive psychological transformation and emotional recovery often occur as the relationship between the therapy animal and the patient grows. 

Exercise in nature. Attend a yoga class in the park or practice some moves on your own. Go for a jog or walk outdoors. Data from a study conducted in 2014 deduced that physical activity and exposure to nature yield big benefits for people’s health. Outdoor exercise can improve mood, lower stress, energize your mind and increase concentration.


For more health and wellness content, visit the INTEGRIS Health For You blog.


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