Natural Remedy

Can spending time in Minnesota’s great outdoors help you beat the blues?

TO ME, NOTHING IS MORE soul depleting than shopping. Unnatural lighting. Annoying background music. Sterile interior spaces. I’d rather spend my free time biking, playing tennis, or even weeding my perpetually overgrown flower beds.

So it was with a bit of a smug attitude that I read about a British study comparing the psychological benefits of mall-walking with those of stroll in a country park. After a walk alfresco, people reported feeling better than before they strapped on their hiking boots. Not so after trudging through the mall. Indoor walks tended to leave people feeling more anxious, in a foul mood, and with lower self-esteem.

Finally! Vindication for my views on shopping.

To the British mental-health charity that commissioned the study, however, the findings said less about the emotional numbing caused by malls than about the healing power of nature. The charity has called for a “green” approach to mental health—one based on a relatively new branch of psychology called “ecopsychology.” Although not yet officially sanctioned by the medical establishment, ecopsychology (sometimes called ecotherapy) is rapidly gaining adherents in Europe and, to a lesser extent, here in the United States.

Ecopsychology claims that many psychological and emotional problems are the result of our modern-day detachment from nature. Humans instinctively—and often unconsciously—crave contact with the natural world, ecopsychologists argue, yet industrialization and urbanization have left us nature-deprived and, as a result, psychologically injured. To heal ourselves we need to reconnect with nature.

In other words, mucking about outdoors, whether canoeing in the Boundary Waters or hiking on the Gunflint Trail or ice fishing on Lake Calhoun, can be good for your mental health.

“In the past, when people thought about alienation, it was alienation from each other,” says Donna McMillan, a psychology professor at St. Olaf College who covers aspects of ecopsychology in her broader environmental-psychology courses. “But some people are proposing that the alienation goes deeper, and that we’re alienated from the rest of living systems.”

Ecopsychology is not another 1960s-style back-to-the-earth movement. “It’s not about living in some hut with no electricity,” says Susan Loonsk, who teaches a course in ecopsychology, art, and meditation at the University of Wisconsin—Superior and who runs Art-to-Earth, a center for art and ecopsychology. “It has more to do with incorporating some age-old wisdom into a contemporary lifestyle.”

Ecopsychology may sound like New-Agey mumbo jumbo, but a growing number of studies seem to confirm that exposure to nature can help improve emotional well-being. Dutch researchers, for example, discovered that people (particularly women and the elderly) who had easy access to parks, gardens, and other green spaces were in better physical and mental health than those living in urban environments without those amenities. A Swedish study found that city dwellers who spent the most time in open green spaces were the least likely to report stress-related illnesses.

No wonder, then, that many European doctors now prescribe visits to “green care farms” for some of their mentally distressed patients. Under medical guidance, the farmers provide recreational and/or work-related activities to help people reconnect with the land—and lift their mood. Hundreds of care farms dot Europe’s countryside, from Norway to Slovenia, much like mineral spas did in earlier centuries.

Here in Minnesota, your therapist is unlikely to recommend that you start milking cows or baling hay, but he or she might recommend something called “place bonding.” For this ecotherapy activity, you select an outdoor space—a field, a park, a garden, or any other place “where you can encounter nature and hear nature’s voice,” says McMillan—and visit it regularly. Over time, as you observe and come to know the place, you may notice a subtle shift in your thinking that leads, in turn, to a more positive frame of mind.

“When you’re caught in your own suffering, you lose sight of what’s happening around you,” says Jane Lorentzen, a clinical psychologist who sometimes uses ecotherapy techniques in her private practice in Red Wing. “But when you get out and notice nature, you discover that you’re part of something broader and grander. It helps provide perspective.”

Place bonding helped lift one of Lorentzen’s patients out of depression. After moving onto a large piece of rural property in southeastern Minnesota, the woman had become so distressed and anxious that she seldom left her house.
“I’m not usually this concrete, but I had her get outside three times a week and spend at least an hour on her land, learning what was there,” Lorentzen says. Gradually, the woman began gardening and caring for the land. Her depression eased, which helped her become part of her new community.

Depression isn’t an issue for Elizabeth Benes, a senior at the University of Wisconsin—Superior who is majoring in art therapy with an ecopsychology emphasis—but stress is. “Being in a dorm, you have radios blasting, kids screaming,” she says. “It’s hard to wind down.”

To de-stress, Benes often goes to Wisconsin Point, a sandy spit that stretches into Lake Superior, a place she visited during her childhood but never thought of as a possible source of solace until she took one of Loonsk’s ecopsychology-related art courses. “Initially, you think only that the place is pretty,” says Benes. “But once you make that more direct connection, you begin to notice the smallest details, like how kids throwing rocks at the lake can upset the seagulls.” She also began to notice pollution on Wisconsin Point.

Last spring, Benes joined a group of students cleaning up the area. Getting involved in protecting the environment is one of the natural outcomes of ecotherapy, notes Loonsk. In fact, it’s one of ecotherapy’s central tenets. Once people have made an emotional connection with a site, whether an urban lake or a national wilderness area, they are more likely to want to look after it, she says.

Ecopsychology has its skeptics. “As appealing as ecotherapy claims are intuitively, they lack scientific grounding,” says Neil Lutsky, a professor of psychology at Carleton College. The mall walking vs. country walking study, for example, had all sorts of problems, he says. For starters, the study was small (20 people), and the participants weren’t randomly selected. Nor was the study published in a peer-reviewed journal.

“It would really be irresponsible to suggest that people who are suffering from depression should pursue this kind of therapy as opposed to established treatment options like cognitive-behavioral therapy” or antidepressant medication, says Lutsky.

So far, most ecotherapists seem to be recommending ecotherapy as a supplement to standard treatments for depression and other mental disorders, not as a substitute for them. It’s also being offered as an antidote to everyday 21st-century malaise, stress, and angst.

“We get so caught up in the current technological, scientific mode of being, we don’t know how to stop and slow down,” says Loonsk. “We forget that there are other ways of being—and of finding health.”

The science behind ecotherapy may still be a little mushy, but as an editorial in the British Medical Journal noted, most of the outdoor therapies being proposed pose “few risks to health” and are usually associated with exercise, a well-established mood booster. In other words, a little time spent in Mother Nature’s company certainly can’t make your mood any worse.

Susan Perry is a frequent contributor to Minnesota Monthly.