Is Time Outdoors the Key to Helping Veterans Overcome PTSD?

Group of three ride mountain bikes on dirt roadArmy veteran Stephen Simmons served multiple tours in Iraq. When he came home, he was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress, which made interacting with friends and family difficult. Though he had trouble sleeping and struggled with managing his feelings of anger and guilt, he found strength in mitigating these struggles with physical activity. “Instead of ignoring and repressing these aggressive tendencies or jolts of adrenaline in your system, you can put them to work by challenging yourself against nature. It’s about action rather than apathy,” he said in a 2014 article posted on Mother Nature Network.

Why Ecotherapy Works for Former Service Members

Many service men and women are struggling with mental health issues after their tours abroad; this epidemic is claiming the lives of more veterans than the most recent wars themselves. With the growing need for effective mental health services, many veterans are turning to alternative forms of “green” treatment in outdoor settings. Since camaraderie, physical challenge, and personal growth are characteristics of both military service and of many of the ecotherapeutic programs cropping up around the United States, it makes this an ideal treatment form for veterans struggling with posttraumatic stress.

Ecotherapy, an umbrella term to encompass many outdoor approaches, can include adventure therapy, wilderness therapy, horticultural therapy, walk-and-talk therapy, and numerous other nature-oriented programs. Anecdotally, humans have always known that contact with nature improves one’s health. Recent studies (Mostafavi, 2014) have noted the positive impact that nature can have on one’s mood and stress level. Only recently have clinical professionals in the mental health field been combining the healing powers of both therapy and nature. Martin Jordan noted in his book Nature and Therapy that nature is “positive and beneficial to human health in a number of ways: reducing stress, restoring attention, promoting well-being.”

The need for more effective mental health treatments for their community is an issue military members and veterans face. Some find the outdoor recreational modality to be one that is recognizable and comforting. Challenging themselves physically and mentally and striving to attain a goal is familiar to most with a military background. Some veterans report being more willing to engage in an active form of treatment rather than conventional models of therapeutic recovery.

Evidence for the Efficacy of Ecotherapy to Treat Veterans

Stacy Bare, an Iraq war veteran, founded Military Outdoors, which is a program through The Sierra Club that helps veterans access nature to improve their mental health and boost emotional resiliency. Bare believes that wilderness therapy can be used as a way to heal after combat. “We know intuitively that outdoor recreation can provide a quantifiable mental health benefit,” Bare said in an article published by High Country News. Bare feels strongly that a partnership between local Veterans Health Administration hospitals and wilderness programs is necessary, but acknowledges that more data needs to be collected to prove the safety and efficacy of this intervention.

The aim of these ecotherapy programs and services is to connect veterans back to nature in a way that will conjure positive emotions and elicit a sense of confidence when reintegrating into the civilian world.

Some emerging evidence comes from David Scheinfeld, director of research for Project Rebirth, who conducted a study that analyzed the impact of nature-based experiences on veterans’ anxiety levels and their sense of purpose. Nearly 200 veterans participated in a week-long backpacking expedition. Data were gathered in intervals post-outdoor experience. Scheinfeld noted that the majority of participants showed improvement in social engagement, decreased depression, and a rise in the number of people who were willing to seek clinical services after the expedition.

Thresholds, a Chicago-based mental health services agency, is partnering with a botanical garden to offer therapeutic horticultural activities to their veteran clients. Once a month, the group meets at the garden and tends to plants and flowers. The vets participating in this program have reported elevated moods, reduced levels of stress, and feelings of satisfaction when nurturing their plantings. The continual growth, death, and renewal of the plants is viewed as a metaphor for life.

Many veterans who engage in outdoor recreational activities have begun to rediscover their resiliency and have tapped into leadership skills they learned during military service. The aim of these ecotherapy programs and services is to connect veterans back to nature in a way that will conjure positive emotions and elicit a sense of confidence when reintegrating into the civilian world. This form of treatment is a way to garner the benefits of supportive therapy while being out in the wild. It encourages veterans to get out, connect with others, and challenge themselves in both new and sometimes familiar ways.

References:

  1. Moss, L. (2014, August 10). Nature-loving pets help veteran overcome PTSD. Mother Nature Network. Retrieved from http://www.mnn.com/family/pets/stories/nature-loving-pets-help-veteran-overcome-ptsd
  2. Mostafavi, B. (2014, September 23). Walking off depression and beating stress outdoors? Nature group walks linked to improved mental health. University of Michigan Health System. Retrieved from http://www.uofmhealth.org/news/archive/201409/walking-depression-and-beating-stress-outdoors-nature-group
  3. Project Cohort. (n.d.). Project Rebirth. Retrieved from http://www.projectrebirth.org/project-cohort/
  4. Thresholds Veterans Project and Chicago Botanic Gardens. (2014, August 7). Retrieved from http://www.thresholds.org/2014/08/thresholds-veterans-project-chicago-botanic-gardens/
  5. Wiles, T. (2015, February 16). Wilderness as therapist. High Country News. Retrieved from https://www.hcn.org/issues/47.3/wilderness-as-therapist

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  • Constance

    Constance

    September 21st, 2015 at 8:15 AM

    I don’t think that you are ever going to find that time outside would hurt anyone.

  • nan

    nan

    September 21st, 2015 at 10:43 AM

    Seeing stories like this make me soo happy, not because I want someone to have to have treatment, but looking at ways of thinking outside of the proverbial box at things that can be so useful and yet we all take for granted from time to time. I find this to be so rewarding and refreshing to look at new forms of treatment and to say that hey this might be simple but it sure does work.

  • Monica

    Monica

    September 21st, 2015 at 2:33 PM

    Therapy is not a one size fits all sort of thing, I think that we are all educated enough to know that. But if this is something that you see is helping your patient, then of course, I would be all for giving it a try. There are lots of people who relate t being outside in nature, it gives them a chance to feel that they are breaking free of those things that have left them with so much anxiety and fear when they are in side. It is a chance to break free of that and to feel whole again while connecting with the outside world. It is a great theory that should be given some validity.

  • Jess

    Jess

    September 21st, 2015 at 6:43 PM

    How does camping outdoors help women who are agoraphobic from being raped, kidnapped, knifed?

  • Jess

    Jess

    September 21st, 2015 at 6:45 PM

    Unless replys are cheery & supportive this site does not publish honest replies. Shame on your seeming lack of ethics.

  • Tyler

    Tyler

    September 22nd, 2015 at 7:20 AM

    jess- that is not the experience that I have had here but I am sorry if it has been yours. Of course this will not work for everyone and there are multiple treatment modes that may could help someone who has been through horrific violence such as t his. I hope that somewhere you can find what you are searching for because I know that if this happened to you or even someone that you love you need to have help and get to a healing place in your life. Peace

  • tanner

    tanner

    September 22nd, 2015 at 10:32 AM

    I love the gardening group idea… brilliant!
    And to use that as a way to tie into life and the circle of life?
    So inspiring

  • Sarah T

    Sarah T

    September 22nd, 2015 at 5:10 PM

    It really is going to depend on the individual whether or not this makes a real impact on them from a healing standpoint.

  • Martin

    Martin

    September 23rd, 2015 at 7:46 AM

    I assume that this is why there are also a good number of outdoor wilderness programs which are used to help troubled youth as well?

  • Laurel

    Laurel

    September 24th, 2015 at 7:57 AM

    action over apathy… I love it! and so applicable to us all

  • Abbie

    Abbie

    September 25th, 2015 at 11:16 AM

    Hi all- thank you for all of the positive comments! As many of you have noted, this form of therapy is not for everyone or for every issue that people are struggling with. However, multitudes of studies out there do suggest that time in nature is beneficial for all of us. Stay tuned for my other articles on ecotherapy!

  • Reed

    Reed

    September 27th, 2015 at 7:52 AM

    Can’t wait to see more articles regarding this issue. I do think that many times to heal you have to encounter some things that really are not that pleasant and to challenge yourself to do some things that may not always be the most comfortable.

  • dunCAN

    dunCAN

    September 28th, 2015 at 8:58 AM

    probably a good way to do this especially when this is the kind of environmental setting that these soldiers have been accustomed to

  • Jerry

    Jerry

    September 29th, 2015 at 10:30 AM

    Please do remember though that there are always going to be certain experiences that a person may not ever wish to relive, so for them confronting that one thing or multiple things may be even more difficult than it was living it the first time.
    It can be the reliving of that memory over and over again which can be the thing that they most dread having to face.

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