“I just want to be natural,” said Fran, my 53 year-old patient who is battling obesity, diabetes, and generalized anxiety. She didn’t like the idea of putting artificial chemicals in her body, no matter how well-studied or common the medicines. So of course we talked about diet and exercise, good sleep, and avoiding alcohol. “But,” I confided in her, “quite honestly, Fran, these problems of diabetes and anxiety run much deeper, and getting to the root of them will require digging into the roots of our culture.”
Fran’s difficulty with “just wanting to be natural” is that most of us no longer live in a natural world. Rather, we hunker inside, connected to our phones, while largely eating artificial lab-designed foods. We doctors have long known that this lifestyle is associated with obesity, diabetes, strokes and heart attacks. But now we are seeing more and more lifestyle-associated depression and anxiety.
As technology improves our living conditions in ways such as the more efficient exchange of ideas and production of food, mental diseases are proliferating. This societal rise in depression and anxiety is in part due to the “natural” result of losing touch with the beauty that is all around us because we are too engrossed in Facebook and Twitter. Could there be a solution? Yes, putting your phone down is always helpful, but if you want to supercharge your mental health, get out into nature.
Nature connection provides incalculable benefits to mental health. Natural sunlight, a light breeze, and leaves crunching underfoot relieve stress akin to taking Valium. One’s blood pressure lowers, heart rate slows, and brain waves regulate. Heck, just seeing a natural scene gives you some of these effects. That’s why we have rolling green fields screensavers on our office computers and photos of a sandy beach in the office cafeteria.
For many years I have been prescribing nature therapy for my patients. I ask them ideally to explore one of our many excellent Santa Barbara hiking trails. Failing that, a walk on the beach. Or, at the very least, do what I do during my lunch break and sit under a tree. I even pinned to the top of my daily TO-DO list: “Running or even walking everyday clears the head, brings healthy thoughts, and connects.” My life, like yours, has stress. I self-medicate with outside time.
Even more alarming than my patients’ struggles is the fact that fewer and fewer children are spending time outdoors. Although we adults remember playing outside for hours everyday, today’s kids are preoccupied with social media. The 24/7 Snapchat cycle aims to re-wire their brains’ reward circuitry. Face-to-face connection and real world beauty are supplanted by photoshopped body standards and the interminable quest for “likes.” It is no wonder that teen depression and suicide are on the rise.
Wilderness Youth Project (WYP) serves a powerful antidote to screens. Every weekday there are eleven WYP vans that spirit children both during and after school into the creeks and the trees. WYP is dedicated to reaching those kids who — like my adult patients at the Public Health Department — have the highest risk for nature deficiency syndrome. The connected staff of WYP mentor these children in mindfulness, nature curiosity, and dynamic wilderness play, instilling in them a lifetime of tools to combat anxiety and obesity.
My patients’ and my community’s goals are aligned. We all want to be smarter, happier, and healthier, and we would like to do that naturally. Toward that end there is little better medicine that I — and Wilderness Youth Project — can prescribe than 100% pure high-quality nature connection.
– Anthony Rogers, M.D., Family Physician at the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department