What does “wellness in the wilderness” even mean? And why do I talk about it to anyone who will listen?
This is the perfect time of year to talk about why getting outside is So. Damn. Awesome. Getting outdoors is one of the best ways to feel better and heal faster.
Establishing a connection to our wild side can save our lives. How?
When we are in wild spaces, we are creating room to feel things that are usually suppressed in our indoor lives- we are accessing our own wild side.
And when we do this, we enter into a relationship with Mother Earth, a relationship that will increase our desire and motivation to boost our “go green” motivation and engage in Earth saving acts.
“This we know, the earth does not belong to man: man belongs to the earth… Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life: he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself”
--Chief Seattle, Duwamish and Squamish tribes Puget Sound
Let’s challenge the dominant euro-american narrative of separation of self from nature.
When we reconnect with nature, we stimulate our imagination, our intuition and our physical bodies- which leads to a deeper sense of being, and a deeper connection to the larger life giving systems that provide oxygen, food and water.
How the wilderness is therapeutic:
There is also an enormous therapeutic benefit from spending time outside.
Experiencing ruminating thoughts, feeling like the hamster in your head just keeps running?
Time spent walking outside can be an exercise in mindfulness and can help reduce feelings of anxiety.
Feeling symptoms of depression?
Moving in the outdoors can increase your feelings of connectedness to a larger system which directly combats isolation.
Feeling a chaotic energy you can’t quite identify? Maybe even a little detached from your physical self?
Use all your senses to re-regulate your nervous system. Getting outside isn’t just a coping skill, it's a way to re-integrate ourselves, to feel our bodies move, to feel air on our skin, to feel the sweat cooling us down, to feel wind and sun, to smell rain, to smell blooming flowers or decaying leaves. To hear snapping sticks under foot, or leaves shaking in the wind.
These experiences recalibrate our nervous system, and can provide us with a deeply felt sense of wholeness, something that is especially beneficial in healing from trauma.
Wildroots Collective especially likes to focus on the way that using our physical bodies in the wilderness leads to feelings of empowerment.
In the outdoors, your body’s assigned gender, size, height, shape, color don't prevent us from experiencing the feeling of this wholeness in the outdoors. Hiking inclines, tying knots, setting up tents, gathering firewood, your body works to meet its base level needs- shelter, warmth and food. People with disabilities or who may be confined to a wheelchair do have limited access to some of these experiences. This is why I also want to emphasize the healing abilities of the experience with or without lots of physical movement.
This experience helps you know that you can care for yourself -- you can nurture yourself.
This increases our sense of confidence in all challenges we experience, because when we are feeling negatively impacted by others, we can pull from these experiences and are reminded that we are capable of overcoming obstacles.
Healing in wilderness:
Roger Ulrich, an evidence-based design architect, published a study that demonstrated the healing power of the outdoors. He found that when patients recovering from gall bladder surgery were provided with a hospital room window with a view of deciduous trees, their healing time was shorter and included less pain medication compared to the other group who had a view of a brown brick wall (Ulrich, 1984).
This means that you are still taking an active step in your wellness and healing if you can sit by a window!
Ulrich also demonstrated through his continued research that after observing nature scenes, people experienced an increase in positive feelings of friendliness, affection, joy and playfulness AND they experienced an increase in serotonin production (Ulrich et al., 1991).
This means that from sitting by a window to packing your backpack for a week, being in or near nature is healing.
We don't need to go into evolutionary theories here, but let’s identify that in a mostly indoor, artificially lit, technology ruled life, stepping out from under a roof and away from plug ins FEELS GOOD.
It’s the kind of thing that we feel in our core.
Increasing accessibility to the wilderness:
We often see pictures of white people in expensive outdoor gear accessing the wilderness. Sadly, this has made getting outside feel inaccessible to a groups of marginalized people and perpetuates the negative impacts of the white invasion.
One of the many tragic outcomes of europeans seizing this country was the severing of the powerful relationship that Indigenous people had with their lands.
Indigenous peoples were violently forced to abandon their synchronous relationship with Mother Earth, which has resulted in serious negative consequences.
Ready to be part of the solution while also taking action for your own wellness?
As we strive to reconnect to nature and to restore our relationship, we need to first honor that many of us are guests in these spaces.
We need to honor the valuable and precious cultural and traditional history of Indigenous peoples and approach all of our outdoor spaces with humility – for the people who came before us, for the strength and wisdom of the animals who continue to survive in it, and for the incredible and unmeasured power of the forces of our Mother Earth.
The survival of our souls depends on it.
If you are accessing Tribal lands, be sure to purchase the proper Tribal Land Permits. Pay for your fishing/hunting licenses, this money goes to land management and is integral for keeping those spaces accessible.
Let’s also take a look at the Leave No Trace Principles of accessing the outdoors (please see this article to learn more about LNT principles https://bearfoottheory.com/basic-guidelines-of-leave-no-trace/):
Plan ahead and prepare
Travel and camp and durable surfaces
Dispose of waste properly (don’t burn plastics, don’t bury anything that you pack in, pack out all garbage!)
Leave what you find
Minimize campfire impacts (ALWAYS check with the local ranger district on fire risks and follow fire restrictions posted!)
Be considerate of Other Visitors
These principles are in place in order protect natural lands and to increase knowledge about the delicacy of our eco-systems.
You can benefit from this healing too!
You don't need expensive hiking boots, you don’t need fancy outer wear – you can find quick-dry, non-cotton exercise clothes in many local thrift stores (Just make sure to check weather and bring what you need to stay dry and warm).
Wilderness Therapy = Magic
Some call it Wilderness Therapy, some call it Ecotherapy, some call it Adventure Therapy (all of these different terms do have slightly nuanced meaning – but that is beyond the scope of this blog), I call it magic.
The wilderness can be a place where your physiology heals, a place where your neurochemistry is positively activated, and a place where your mind, body and heart can function as connected parts of one whole. The wilderness can be a seat by a window, a walk in a park, a hike to a summit, loading the car for a state campground, or a multi-day backpacking trip. It can mean so many things – all offering a magical opportunity to take a deep breath and REALLY feel something.
Wildroots Collective believes in this philosophy and orients our work around these principles. Check out our website and reach out to Kari at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more!
Atkins, S & Snyder, M. (2018). Nature-Based Expressive Arts Therapy- Integrating the Expressive Arts and Ecotherapy. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London, UK.
McGeeney, A. (2016). With Nature in Mind- The Ecotherapy Manual for Mental Health Professionals. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London, UK.
Mott, R. (2022). The 7 Leave No Trace Principles and How to Follow Them: https://bearfoottheory.com/basic-guidelines-of-leave-no-trace/
Summers, J. K., & Vivian, D. (2018). Ecotherapy- A Forgotten Ecosystem Service: A Review. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6085576/#B173