Here at Bodhi Surf + Yoga, we spend an inordinate amount of time out of doors. We are constantly soaking up the flourishing beauty that surrounds us in our quiet little town of Bahia Ballena. Not only do we live and work in a small, relatively undeveloped community — nestled between tree-laden mountains and the Pacific Ocean — but nature immersion is quite literally what our business is all about. And we certainly practice what we preach.
“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” — John Burroughs
Whether walking to the beach for sunset, hiking up into the mountains to cool off at a waterfall (of which there are many), or surfing within the pristine confines of Marino Ballena National Park, we spend much of our days recreating outside. Needless to say, each of us has a very strong emotional bond with nature. This bond plays a central role in our health and vitality. We see nature as a form of therapy or even mental health practice.
However, due to recent lockdown restrictions imposed by the Coronavirus pandemic, our team has been spending much less time frolicking in Mother Ocean and much more time sitting in front of our computers as of late. And for many of us, the past few months spent indoors have been marked with an unusual and unwelcome feeling of melancholy and malaise. Which begs the question: how must everyone else be feeling right now?
Urbanization and the mental health crisis
For much of human existence, from nomadic hunter-gatherers to subsistence farmers, we have lived our lives mostly outside (and in a state of perpetual motion). Therefore, when we stop moving our bodies like we’re meant to. With the proliferation of the 9-to-5 cubicle economy in modern, Western societies, our bodies (and minds) ultimately pay the price for this indolence.
With 55% of the world’s population now living in urban areas, modern lifestyles have undeniably shifted us away from nature. What’s more, even as the processes of urbanization have resulted in millions of humans living in close proximity to one another, it seems our species is feeling more disconnected and lonely than ever.
“But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.” — Rachel Carson
Sadly, the World Health Organization notes that there are now more than 264 million diagnosed cases of depression worldwide, and counting. Diagnoses of major depression among Americans have risen by 33% in less than a decade. This rate is rising even faster among millennials and adolescents in the United States.
Could there be a causal link between the mass migration of humans to cities and rising depression rates among the youth? According to a 2018 study published in the academic journal Frontiers in Psychology:
Increasing urbanization has significantly reduced the opportunity for safe outdoor play in cities and, even, in the suburbs. In order to protect them from harm, many parents actively discourage children from going outdoors. As a result, more children are growing up disconnected from nature and the outdoors. This severing from interactions with nature could have important ramifications for children’s well-being and healthy development.
A walk in the woods
But wait, there’s good news! Recent research in the field of neuroscience has presented physicians with a surprising new option for treating and preventing a variety of mental health disorders. There exists a natural remedy that is simple, effective, and doesn’t come in pill form: a walk in nature (and did I mention it’s free?). Ecotherapy, or using the restorative power of nature-based therapies to enhance healing is an ancient concept. It is also one that is being brought to the fore by budding scientific research.
“I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.” — Henry David Thoreau
A well-known 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) examined the mechanism(s) that link decreased nature experience to the development of mental illness, focusing on rumination — “a maladaptive pattern of self-referential thought that is associated with heightened risk for depression and other mental illnesses” — as the link of choice.
The study found that participants who took a 90-minute walk in a natural environment “reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment.” Researchers concluded that this study “reveals a pathway by which nature experience may improve mental well-being and suggests that accessible natural areas within urban contexts may be a critical resource for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.”
One prevailing hypothesis as to how nature heals us is the attention restoration theory. It posits that spending time outside allows us to rest the attentional networks in our brains, as rapid information processing decelerates to match the slow and methodical pace of the natural world.
“Adopt the pace of Nature. Her secret is patience.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
In natural settings, exposure to non-threatening stimuli like sights, smells, and sounds “combine to activate the unconsciously controlled ‘rest and digest’ functions of our bodies, which are regulated by our parasympathetic nervous system,” writes Aaron Reuben in a recent article published by Outside Magazine. “These functions are suppressed when a threatening stimulus, whether a venomous snake or an aggressive work email, triggers our sympathetic ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ system. If that response stays active long enough, our immune, digestive, reproductive, and psychological health suffers.”
If we take into consideration that humans have a nervous system designed for an entirely different (slower, less complex) way of life, then it makes sense that the system would go haywire when it is exposed to an ever-increasing onslaught of information. Thankfully, it seems that returning to the great outdoors switches our nervous system functioning from sympathetic to parasympathetic; from a depletion state to a restoration state.
Your brain on water
Another popular hypothesis for nature’s healing mechanism is the stress reduction theory, which revolves around the concept of biophilia — a term coined by Harvard naturalist Dr. E. O. Wilson to describe what he saw as humanity’s “innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes,” and to be drawn toward the natural world in which our species evolved. Therefore, we instinctively feel relaxed and happy in natural environments, which afford our chronically stressed nervous systems a moment to finally decompress.
It is this idea of biophilia that inspired renowned marine biologist and conservationist, Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, to dive into the realm of neuroscience to better understand the human-water connection. In his best-selling book Blue Mind, Nichols claims that being around water provides a sensory-rich environment with enough “soft fascination” to let our focused attention rest and the mind to wander.
“Water gives our brains a break,” Nichols writes. “It holds your attention but doesn’t demand it; can provide auditory stimulation without the need to process information; and, when we float in it, water even defies gravity.”
“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” – Jacques Cousteau
In fact, water sports like surfing have been shown to release beneficial neurochemicals including natural opiates like endorphins (peaceful, euphoric feeling), oxytocin (calm mood), and the pleasure rush of dopamine that is triggered by novelty and risk. This euphoric cocktail of neurochemicals that surfers experience while riding waves often results in flow — a widely sought after expression of ultimate human performance.
But wave-riding is not the only mechanism for experiencing the transformative effects of the brain on water. “When you enter the water, something like metamorphosis happens,” writes naturalist Roger Deakin in his book Waterlog. “Leaving behind the land, you go through the looking-glass surface and enter a new world. You’ve crossed a boundary, and the experience of life while swimming is intensely different from any other. Your sense of the present is overwhelming.”
Sense of wonder
“The most beautiful gift of nature is that it gives one pleasure to look around and try to comprehend what we see.” – Albert Einstein
When we experience something as vast as the Pacific Ocean, it takes us out of ourselves. wWhen we stand in awe of something that is beyond comprehension, our egos simply fade away. In nature, we become less self-involved and more connected to the elements that surround us; the same elements from which we came.
Once we recognize just how much we need these natural sources of peace, tranquility, and positivity, we will undoubtedly work harder to protect them. But we do not protect what we do not love, so falling in love is the crucial first step. I suggest you take that step outside, and then continue walking from there.