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Healing from Nature Deficit Disorder, Part I

Healing from Nature Deficit Disorder, Part I

This is the first installment in a two-part series dealing with the adverse repercussions of isolation from nature on our mental-emotional health, and ramifications for addiction treatment.


Until relatively recent times we have historically experienced a close connection with nature. Prime examples of indigenous cultures that emphasized living in harmony with nature include the various American Indian nations together with African tribal cultures. Indeed, our American Indian predecessors embraced a worldview that emphasized living in balance with nature in all aspects of their lives (McGaa, 2005).


Most of us are aware of spiritual leaders who undertook extended retreats into the wilderness for spiritual contemplation, such as Moses, the prophets Elijah and Joshua, Jesus, and the Buddha.


Our Growing Isolation from Nature


The Renaissance fueled the growth of cities throughout Europe as families increasingly migrated from farms to the city, where they were subjected to overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. Prior to the industrial revolution most families lived, worked, and played in the open land, breathing fresh air, drinking fresh water, and filling their plates with homegrown food. During the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries the accelerated migration to cities ushered in a whole new way of life. Obsessed with material acquisition, these urban dwellers spent most of their time indoors, purchasing their food and clothing from retail outlets, and gradually losing touch with the world’s natural order. Mega-technological breakthroughs in recent decades have accentuated our disconnection from nature through fostering dependency on our PCs, laptops, smartphones, and other technological appendages. 


In 2008 Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” (NDD) in his book Last Child in the Woods. His underlying premise is that human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors, resulting in a wide range of behavioral problems including escalating substance abuse. Presented below is a brief summation of Louv’s thinking in applying the concepts embodied in NDD in attempting to pinpoint both the causes and effective treatment for one of the most prevalent mental disorders among US children, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  


Louv states that children with ADHD are restless and have trouble listening, paying attention, following directions, and focusing on tasks. Significantly, a meta-analysis of several studies which was published in the medical journal Pediatrics found that children with a history of ADHD were 2.5 times as likely to develop a substance abuse disorder (Harstad & Levy, 2014).


Louv observes that many parents and teachers reported a marked improvement in ADHD symptoms following a child’s hiking in the mountains or engaging in other outings in nature.  Family therapist and author Michael Gurian concurs with Louv’s observations, stating that “Our brains are set up for an agrarian, nature-oriented existence that came into focus five thousand years ago . . . Neurologically, human beings haven’t caught up with today’s overstimulating environment . . . Getting kids out in nature can make a difference” (Louv, 2008). 


Observing that 90 percent of children placed on medication for ADHD are boys (Louv, 2008), Louv believes that our rapid transition from a rural to a highly urbanized culture is a major factor underlying the current epidemic of ADHD. He notes that throughout most of human history “energetic boys were particularly prized for their strength, speed, and agility . . . girls as well as boys (were) directing their energy and physicality in constructive ways: doing farm chores, bailing hay, splashing in the swimming hole . . . Their regimented play (was) steeped in nature” (Louv, 2008).   


Let us now take a broader look at Louv’s nature deficit disorder in terms of its multidimensional impact. 


As readers are painfully aware, people in developed nations are subjected to a fast-paced environment that inundates us with excessive stimulation emanating from manmade sources. These intrusions take many forms, including a constant onslaught of emails and text messages, the seductive Internet, newscasts, telemarketing, and other forced exposure to unwanted advertising, and the constant din of noxious noise that permeates our cities. Due to high tech breakthroughs, millions of people are “on-call 24/7” with no place to hide. Living in an incessantly overwhelming environment, few of us have ready access to the refuge afforded by living in pristine natural surroundings.


I submit that we are all suffering from nature deficit disorder to one extent or another, and that this phenomenon is inextricably linked to the epidemics of anxiety, depression, social isolation, substance abuse, and other mental disorders plaguing the populations of developed nations. Uprooted from nature, far too many of us suffer from a lack of spiritual grounding and loss of purpose.   


I also submit that the myriad diseases of civilization, including hypertension, heart disease, stroke, and many forms of cancer—together with obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and suicide and homicide—are inextricably linked to our disconnect from nature. This disconnect manifests itself in the form of overly sedentary lifestyles accompanied by obesity, which in turn is largely attributable to the food industry’s obsession with highly processed food laden with saturated fat, white flour, and highly concentrated sugar and sodium. And unless we can afford to purchase all of our food from organic sources, even the “fresh” produce we buy comes from plants laden with toxic pesticides that are grown on nutritionally depleted soil. 


From an ecological perspective, the very viability of our planet is threatened by our misguided actions reflecting our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual disconnect from nature. Driven by a relentless pursuit of material wealth, we have destroyed millions of acres of rainforests, created a giant hole in the ozone layer and depleted the nutrients in our soil through overfarming and lack of crop rotation, as we continue to dump millions, perhaps billions of tons of pollutants into the air we breathe and our oceans on a daily basis.  


I shudder to think of the suffering our children and grandchildren will experience as a consequence of this irreparable damage to our planet. Indeed, if we desire to leave behind a habitable world, we must take bold action now to reverse the damage we have wrought as a result of our physical, mental-emotional, and spiritual alienation from nature.


The second and final installment in this series will address specific steps that each of us can take toward re-embracing nature, with particular reference to ramifications affecting addiction treatment. In the meantime I urge you to spend some time reconnecting with nature.  


Until next time—to your health!




Harstad, E., & Levy, S. (2014). Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and substance abuse. Pediatrics, 134(1), e293–e301. 
Louv, R. (2008). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
McGaa, E. (2005). Nature’s way: Native wisdom for living in balance with the earth. New York, NY: Harper Collins.