How do you heal from trauma without spending hundreds or even thousands of pounds on therapy?
Spending time in nature is relaxing, free of cost and has no known negative side effects. But how effective is nature in healing mental illness, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
Imagine walking through a thick forest; the rich smell of vegetation, the sound of leaves rustling and birds singing, feeling the soft earth beneath your feet. You inhale deeply and exhale with a smile – you don’t know why but when you’re in nature, you feel whole, satisfied and deeply relaxed.
Now picture standing on top of a mountain, looking out at the vast space around you, the sun hidden behind dramatic clouds and the shadows of majestic peaks lining the horizon. You feel overcome by emotion – amazed by the sheer size of your surroundings and moved by the beauty of this planet.
Intuitively you know that nature is good for you and that you feel better when you’ve been for a walk in the forest or dipped your toes in the ocean. But what are the psychological mechanisms behind that?
Nature inspires awe
Research looking into the specific emotions we feel when we engage with nature is shining light on how it produces its positive effects. It found that the emotion with the biggest impact on reducing stress and increasing positive functioning is awe.
Being in awe of something or feeling awe is synonymous with amazement, wonder, admiration and respect. And research has found that there are many emotional, mental and physical benefits to experiencing this type of emotion.
Various studies have shown that it can improve well-being and life satisfaction, lower inflammation, reduce materialism and desire for money and make people more generous and cooperative and feel more connected to other people.
How can feeling awe have this profound effect on us?
When we’re going about our day-to-day lives and/ or struggle with mental health problems we tend to spend a lot of time in our heads, ruminating about the past and worrying about the future. This can make us feel alone and lost and like our problems are too big to overcome.
Experiencing awe by spending time in nature or doing an exciting outdoor activity gives us a sense of being small or ‘self-diminished’ and a part of something bigger. It humbles us and reduces entitlement, arrogance and narcissism. It’s good to remember that we’re only a tiny speck in the infinite universe as this can reduce the intensity of negative emotions.
Trauma and awe
The benefits listed above are enough reason to get out there and be awed! But how can the experience of awe help in the recovery from post-traumatic stress and PTSD?
People who have experienced trauma are often hypervigilant, constantly assessing their surroundings for threats, are easily startled and find it hard to focus. This is due to the hyperactivity of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).
The SNS is vital for survival as it prepares the body for fight/ flight/ freeze. People who have experienced trauma often get ‘stuck’ in this survival mode, which means the SNS is always ‘switched on’.
When we’re healthy and functioning, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) calms down the body and mind when the threat is over by releasing a different set of hormones that tell you ‘it’s OK, the danger’s gone’.
Research has shown that experiencing the positive type of awe increases the activity of the PNS, which has a relaxing effect and reduces anxiety. So if our SNS is hyperactive, doing something that induces awe can help to calm it down.
Various things can produce awe, like the achievements of a person or a particular piece of music, but when asked, people most often recall an awe-inducing moment with nature. If you have time now, close your eyes for a moment and think about an experience you had with nature that gave you a sense of awe and see how it makes you feel.
You don’t even need to leave your house to feel the benefits of nature. Research has shown that viewing videos/ pictures or imagining nature can reduce stress and increase life satisfaction. And another piece of research found that viewing pictures of nature can replenish cognitive resources (your ability to think and focus), which boosts your ability to cope.
Many trauma survivors no longer feel there’s meaning or purpose in life. They lack energy, have little or no pleasure in doing things they used to love and feel hopeless and numb.
In western society, it’s been largely forgotten that we’re deeply interconnected with nature and that it forms our very existence – that it’s the basis of all life and provides us with everything we need to survive.
The mental and physical benefits we get from direct contact with nature stem from humans having evolved over tens of thousands of years in an ecological context. We can’t separate ourselves from nature, although we have become blinded to this fact.
Indigenous peoples who are still connected to ancient wisdom know that the natural world is alive and that the interaction between humans and nature is vital to ensure the survival of both. And although we might live in urban environments and are addicted to modern technology, there’s nothing that comes close to the emotional, cognitive and spiritual fulfilment we experience through nature.
Therefore reconnecting with nature is an essential component of reconnecting with ourselves and the purpose and meaning of life. Being connected with nature, engaging in outdoor activities or even just viewing pictures of natural settings helps people to heal and get back what’s been lost through experiencing trauma.
Of course, going out and being in nature is the most effective but here are a few things you can do that don’t require you to leave the house but can have a calming effect and inspire awe:
- Getting and tending to houseplants
- Planting something and watching it grow
- Looking at trees or clouds out of your window
- Watching nature documentaries or videos
- Listening to nature sounds such as ocean waves or forest sounds
Although it might not be the only solution or have all the answers, integrating nature into your healing journey is effective, wholesome and it doesn’t have to cost a thing.
Anna Drescher holds a master’s degree in psychology and mental health. She’s been working in the field for almost 10 years.