Healing from Nature Deficit Disorder, Part II
This is the second and final installment in a series dealing with adverse repercussions of our growing isolation from nature. In the previous column I introduced the concept of nature deficit disorder (NDD) as a term coined by author Richard Louv, in reference to his belief that our growing disconnect from nature is a significant factor underlying a wide variety of health-related and social problems prevalent in developed nations (2008). Elaborating on this theme, I discussed the growing body of evidence that suggests that our growing isolation from nature is inextricably linked to the epidemics of anxiety, depression, social isolation, alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse, and other behavioral disorders plaguing our population. I also believe this is true with many episodes of suicide and homicide. I also speculated that NDD might properly be viewed as a root cause of numerous physiological disorders, including hypertension, heart disease, stroke, many forms of cancer, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. Finally, I discussed the impact of our disconnect from nature as it threatens the very longevity of our planet.
This column will address specific steps that each of us can take toward reembracing nature, with particular attention to ramifications affecting addiction treatment.
As a youth I was intrigued by the “buzz” associated with major urban centers, including New York, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Chicago. My early yearnings for city life were no doubt attributable to my growing up in largely rural areas and succumbing to the “grass is greener” syndrome. Three years living in downtown Brooklyn cured me of New York, and believe it or not, I was lured to Chicago by my fascination with the close to thirty miles of beachfront spanning north to south along the shore of Lake Michigan. In the mid-1960s I drove from Chicago to Colorado and was awestruck by the breathtaking open spaces I encountered west of the Mississippi.
In 1970 I packed my bags and fled from Chicago to Southern California, which was home for myself and my wife Ann until we retired from our day jobs in 2005. To be sure, LA with its smog-filled skies and never-ending urban sprawl is a far cry from an idyllic natural setting. Little knowing that this would be my home for the next thirty-five years, I was initially attracted to the area by the climate and the relative proximity to the ocean, mountains, and desert.
In 2010 Ann and I landed in a northwest suburb of Tucson, a true nature lovers’ paradise that I immediately feel in love with. With its pleasant (by my standards) year-round climate, by far the cleanest air of any major city in the southwest, a desert landscape filled with awesome vegetation and abundant wildlife, and a vast network of hiking trails traversing the mountains surrounding our city, I consider myself truly blessed to live here.
Admittedly, most readers are not able to live in a beautiful area surrounded by nature such as the one I am fortunate enough to call home. If it is within your means, however, you might consider planning to eventually retire to a more natural locale and/or laying your hands on a modest wilderness retreat as an escape for weekends and vacations.
In the meantime, I urge you to be creative and make the time for first-hand contact with nature in the midst of a hectic urban existence. Some ways of doing this include:
- Take a long walk outdoors every day. When I worked at a large urban hospital for thirteen years, I’d grab a sandwich and apple at my desk and spend the rest of my lunch hour walking around the hospital grounds. Brisk walking is an excellent form of aerobic exercise, and walking outside deepens your connection with nature.
- Join your friends and family on weekend nature explorations. It’s especially important to encourage your kids to get away from their computer screens and immerse themselves in the outdoors whenever possible.
- If you work indoors, take frequent breaks to look out the window.
- Get your hands dirty working the land. My wife has a green thumb and bonds with nature through gardening. While I am not a gardener, since we moved to Arizona I find that I enjoy doing (limited) work around the yard such as weeding and raking leaves.
- Enhance your appreciation of Mother Nature’s bounty by experiencing the nutritious benefits of locally grown organic foods. Be sure to impress upon your children the importance of fueling our bodies with whole foods free from pesticides and other man-made toxins.
- Consider making a personal contribution to saving our planet by becoming involved in pro-nature organizations such as the Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy.
Ramifications for Addiction Treatment
Over the past several decades numerous treatment programs, particularly residential extended treatment centers, have added wilderness therapy to their service menu. Wilderness therapy generally focuses on troubled teens and young adults with the objective of guiding participants in developing increased self-reliance and self-respect through immersing them in challenging wilderness experiences, such as whitewater rafting, under the supervision of experienced program staff.
While I am unaware of any studies evaluating the effectiveness of wilderness therapy, intuitively the concept makes a good deal of sense to me. This reflects my own bias toward viewing chemical dependency as a disease of isolation, where the addict is not only isolated from mainstream society but also from his or her own internal spiritual/existential core and sense of meaning in life. As such, it makes sense to me that the opportunity to reconnect with nature in a meaningful manner during treatment might in many cases help novices in recovery gain a greater sense of purpose in their lives, together with a deeper sense of connection with a higher power.
Over and beyond the logical inclusion of wilderness therapy in extended treatment programs, I believe it would be beneficial for both residential and outpatient primary treatment settings to actively explore incorporating more limited wilderness experiences into their active treatment, continuing care, and alumni offerings. One possibility might be to involve clients in a challenging day hike under staff supervision, followed by a group session to process what they learned.
This concludes this series on healing ourselves from nature deficit disorder and potential applications in treatment settings. As always, feel free to share this article with clients and others who may benefit from the message.
Until next time—to your health!
Louv, R. (2008). Lost child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.