This week’s Aspen Ideas Festival at the Aspen Institute revisits the original, founding Aspen ideas, including the belief that living in nature is essential to a good life. Have medical research findings provided support for this Aspen idea? In practicing and teaching psychiatry at medical schools for three decades, I have treated a number of individuals whose psychological development and well-being has indeed been profoundly affected by nature. This group of individuals grew up with grim relationships with their parents. Their fathers and/or mothers frequently indulged their own needs, usually at their children’s expense. They often abused drugs or alcohol – and sometimes their children. These patients were not close to their brothers or sisters. Many of their siblings later developed severe emotional disorders. These patients appeared to have gotten little of the warmth and emotional closeness from their family and friends that psychiatrists believe is needed to develop emotional stability and maturity.
Yet these patients turned out to be less emotionally disturbed than would have been predicted by these barren backgrounds. Though they needed in-depth therapy, their treatments accomplished far more than would have been expected, with little assistance from medications.My research turned up only one factor these patient had in common: their lifelong involvement in the out-of-doors. From an early age, they grew up wandering in the woods, streams and bayous, in the mountains or swamps near their homes. They hiked, climbed, fished, skied, swam, dived and road horseback, immersing themselves in the natural world, throughout their adult lives.Each had developed a personal relationship with something in nature, like horses or climbing. Some seemed to have identified with aspects of the natural world. Some appear to have internalized qualities of nature, like being unusually accepting of people and treating everyone the same. Their relationship with nature appears to have partially made up for their unusually poor relationships with family members. Their immersion in nature appears to have enriched their psychological development, allowing them to make such good use of intensive treatment. These individuals (with identities disguised) are examples:
A university department chairman in great demand as an advisor by his students, described his childhood relationship with nature: I was a very unhappy little boy. A darkness hung over my life that I could not fathom. Life seemed hopeless. It was a beautiful spring day and the other boys were playing baseball, and the girls were all paired up into friendships, and I was alone on the parking lot of our suburban school. I looked at the woods and decided, in the confused way that children decide such things, that I would walk into that dark woods and keep walking until I could neither find my way back and no one could find me. I had decided that death was preferable to the pain of my awful life. I started wandering into the thick woods, my mood feeling calm as my darkness was being mirrored by the dark shade of the trees.Then suddenly a shaft of light came through the high branches and shone on a yellow ladyslipper growing at the base of a tree. I stopped in utter amazement at the beauty of the flower. It held my whole being for a moment.Then I turned and went back to the playground. After that, things got progressively better for me. Everything in my life has hinged on that one moment when a shaft of sunlight fell on a lonely ladyslipper glimmering in the midst of forest gloom.
A nationally recognized professional whose mother had tried to kill him twice when he was a child reported,It is hard to convey my sense of peace and belonging when I stand in the woods or on a mountaintop. I recognized this feeling from at least age 8 or 9. I remember a spot, deep in a pine forest, under a dense canopy, so the sunlight penetrated only in beams. The ground was covered in soft, cool, green grass. I ran in circles through this glade, jumping logs and swinging around the tree trunks. I felt utterly free, like a deer.Being out there brings so many senses to life. Sounds, colors, scents, all heightened. At the same time I do not feel hyperalert, only very immersed. Absorbed – that may be the word. I lose myself or my sense of self, or separateness, of which I am so much aware when I am with people.I am particularly drawn to storms, thunderstorms and blizzards. I rage back at thunderstorms in a way which is sheer fun: laughing, smiling fun, a joyous game. In snowstorms, I travel secretly in the utter quiet and calm which lies within the storm. I stop in little, natural shelters and secretly watch and observe the experience as the storms move by. I wait, absorbed in the anonymity of a storm or perched on a cliff, poised, ready to soar, to be totally free.
Nature is neither for nor against me. It allows me to pass in my own time and manner. At its extremes – storms, winter, cliffs, summits – it is somewhat unpredictable and potentially deadly. But it bears me no malice. I choose to be there. To challenge my skill and my luck. I have felt vastly strengthened by my adventures in the Wild, tested and proven true. If I were to die there, it would be a good death. In other terms, I would be dying at home.A federal administrator suffered severe, double depression: a chronic, smoldering sadness over decades, punctuated by an acute, severe depression in response to feeling powerless in his work. This middle-aged father of three had little interest in living and was obsessed with finding a rooftop where he could leap to his death.He was referred by another psychiatrist who had provided three courses of short-term therapy and eight combinations of the most effective anti-depressants. The psychiatrist said he had seen no results whatsoever. The patient was declared permanently disabled.For several years our treatment focused on what had been crippling in his relationships with his severely narcissistic father and his unresponsive mother (apparent in childhood home movies we viewed together). We explored in depth the beginnings of his rich, lifelong relationship with nature as he wandered in the swamps surrounding his childhood home. Remembering how much the natural world meant to him deepened his bonds with nature, forging a stronger personal link with me and relieving his double depression.
As his depression faded; he obtained an advanced degree to help urban Americans live more harmoniously with nature. He did research, discovering and publishing how many plant species enhance the growth of each other when they are grown together. Pursuing the potential benefits to agroforestry of this discovery will likely become his life’s work.My clinical research has included trying to determine which specific qualities of nature had been so helpful to each of these patients. Findings included these aspects of the natural world: Nature is timeless, reliable, awesome and soothing, especially moving water. Nature offers patients the freedom to roam, while exposing them to animals living a free and wild life. Nature’s treating all people the same, while being stimulating, sometimes daunting, affected these patients. Listening closely to my patients, I realized that they did more than passively respond to the qualities of nature. Rather, they actively (though sometimes without being entirely conscious of what they were doing) used nature to help master their conflicts and further their development. For example, they loved – and allowed themselves to be loved – by their pets and to be nurtured by Mother Nature. They used the natural world as a playground, exploring and mastering emotional difficulties while they explored nature around the globe.This group of patients making use of nature contrasts sharply with Sigmund Freud’s still-influential conclusion. He stated in his later papers that civilization is essential to protect us from nature. On the other hand, analyst Carl Jung was at one with nature and believed that much of 20th-century man’s emotional difficulties emanated from man’s distance from nature. Yet Jung’s followers were also influenced by Jung’s blurring of the boundary between God and nature. He did not point out that many people seem predisposed to respond to nature, apart from God.
One way in which this therapy helped this group of patients was to encourage them to recapture memories of how much they had gotten from the outdoors. The therapeutic effect has been like patients’ remembering how much a forgotten parent’s love had given them.The essential question now is whether there are sufficient findings to begin thinking about how nature might be incorporated into psychodynamic psychotherapy, rather than being used in mostly, less rigorous outdoor therapies. (One of the few uses of nature in such treatment was recently published by Denver-trained Sebastion Santostefano, Ph.D., at a clinic in Boston.)Possibilities include: Should patients in psychotherapy be encouraged to remember good experiences in nature? Should patients be urged to spend more time in the out-of-doors during treatment? Should some therapy sessions be conducted in nature? Would the gains from such modifications in therapy outweigh the inevitable losses from traditional therapies, considering that most past attempts at improvements of psychotherapy have not been successful? These remain important, open issues for discussion.Associate Clinical Professor Jerry Stein, M.D., practices psychiatry in Old Snowmass. He recently presented this clinical research at an international Jungian meeting, the CAPS meeting at Princeton and the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. He can be reached at email@example.com].