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The Healing Nature of Nature Therapy

In a world stuffed with technology and distraction, Bradley Orsted reaches out to touch the natural world in Greater Yellowstone

It's easy to see why nature can be therapeutic: the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park.
It's easy to see why nature can be therapeutic: the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park.
Story and photos by Bradley Orsted

The wildness of Greater Yellowstone inspires wonder and awe in everyone willing to venture out and touch it, walk in it, observe its wildlife, and breathe in its air. We are beginning to understand time in nature also has a curative effect on everything from PTSD, depression, anxiety and substance abuse, to lowering cortisol levels. Many therapists have begun seeing their clients in the woods in lieu of a stuffy office, using the backdrop as an integral part of the treatment. But what exactly is nature therapy, how does it work, and how can we self-medicate?

For me, nature therapy is any time I spend out of doors where my central nervous system settles down. It’s really that simple. Any place I can stroll or sit long enough for the birds to go back to what they were doing will suffice. With some patience and practice, this can be achieved almost anywhere: a city park has the same restorative benefits as an alpine lake. Sound crazy? Science is finally catching up with what poets and indigenous cultures have known all along: Nature heals. Mindful time in the outdoors unlocks the medicine already hard-wired within all of us. But how?
When I enter the nature headspace, especially in grizzly country, I become a heightened sense of awareness. My elevated consciousness stimulates a feeling of connection and interrelationship with the world around me.
Pick a religion. Go ahead, any religion. I’ll bet there is a prophet or disciple who was either sent, or willingly sought out the wilderness for wisdom and healing. From desert hermits to the ascetics, human beings have been venturing into nature to navigate the wilderness both underfoot and within since the dawn of time. Black Elk, the well-known holy man of the Oglala Lakota went to the Black Hills to seek his visions, Muhammed received his divine message in a cave, while the Buddha sat
Hiking under the great wide open in Grand Teton National Park
Hiking under the great wide open in Grand Teton National Park
under the Bodhi tree. Both Jesus and Moses went to the wilderness. Christ spent his 40 days wandering in the desert while Moses got 40 years; nepotism on an Old Testament scale. The point is, if we’ve sought wisdom and healing in nature for 99.9 percent of our time as a species on this planet, why are we now turning to the not-so-great indoors for healing?

Our brains and physiology evolved in nature, in the great out of doors. Mountain meadows, trees, water, fire, wind and skies. We are all biophilic. As the environmentalist-poet Gary Snyder says, “Nature is not a place we visit. It is home.” It’s where we developed as a species, and what we know at our collective core. We did not evolve in these boxes within boxes inside boxes we call homes that are artificially heated or cooled to match our ever-present whims, and where we self-lambaste with technology, constantly overstimulated, but never really getting anywhere. We need sunlight and fresh air more than ever to keep us balanced.

Even animals seem to seek nature therapy. I know it sounds odd, and it may just be a longshot, but here’s what I’ve seen: When animals are wounded or sick, they seek draws, ravines or thickets to lie down in while trying to hide, rest and heal. Bears dig roots for their medicinal values. Nature is their pharmacy. I’ve also witnessed both bison and bears appear to enjoy the views in Yellowstone National Park, while pausing to acknowledge it. Passive awe. It’s one of the key components to a healthy lifestyle.

When I enter the nature headspace, especially in grizzly country, I become a heightened sense of awareness. My elevated consciousness stimulates a feeling of connection and interrelationship with the world around me. My internal dialogue slows. My mind turns to beauty and introspection. I remind myself it’s good to be a little cold, picking up the pace on the trail. In nature, I’m sometimes overcome with such a sense of tranquility and compassion that my body seems to transcend the corporeal world. My central nervous system begins quieting because I am home, and this is recognizable to my being. The reason this is happening is easily explained in the brain.

When we experience nature, even on a superficial level, we’re triggering our bodies to release “happy hormones.” These four feel-good hormones are dopamine, serotonin, endorphins and oxytocin. As neurotransmitters, they are naturally released inside our brains when we merely spend time outside. Simultaneously, we’re lowering blood pressure and allowing our brains to take a much-needed break from the barrage of a multitude of mostly meaningless decisions we make every day.
That calming feeling: Moonset over the Crazy Mountains
That calming feeling: Moonset over the Crazy Mountains
Five hours a month is the recommended amount of time we need outside to boost our immunity, elevate creativity, and help settle the central nervous system, aka homeostasis. That’s only 10 minutes per day outside walking, or even just sitting in the sunshine, to reap the restorative rewards of Mother Nature. Fold in a digital detox as well during those 10 minutes a day outside and watch your focus return. Don’t believe me? Try it for a week.
We did not evolve in these boxes within boxes inside boxes we call homes ... We need sunlight and fresh air more than ever to keep us balanced.
Writing this in the shadow of the Crazy Mountains in south-central Montana, I’m fortunate to have a 360-degree view of wilderness around me. However, I also spend a lot of time at a city park next to the wastewater treatment facility that parallels a busy set of train tracks. When the wind blows just right off the Crazies and across the pungent retaining pool, and as a nearby BNSF train barrels for Billings, I can still smile and feel the energy coming off the earth.

It doesn’t sound like the perfect setting for nature therapy. That’s why I enjoy it so much. Having spent enough time in the wild, I can now access that mindfulness wherever I am. It doesn’t matter if it’s downwind of a retaining pond next to a speeding locomotive, or navigating a busy city sidewalk. I can breathe deeply, control my anxiety, and lean into the calm knowing I’m home.

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Bradley Orsted
About Bradley Orsted

Brad Orsted is a Montana-based, award-winning wildlife photographer, conservation filmmaker, author, speaker, poet, and wilderness therapy advocate. His work can be seen on the BBC, PBS, Nature, Smithsonian Channel, and Nat Geo Wild, as well as in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. Brad's memoir, Through the Wilderness: My Journey of Redemption and Healing in the American Wild (St. Martin’s Press)chronicles the loss of his daughter, Marley, and his odyssey to find recovery and healing in the wilds of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. 
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