Earth Day blew by recently so I started thinking about how spending time in Nature can help heal unhealthy compulsive tendencies. And it occurred to me, the activity we need the most is often the activity that we don’t bother doing.
There’s an increasing amount of research which suggests that spending at least two hours each week engaging with nature improves our well-being. And because of the epidemic of Nature Deficit Disorder (yes, it’s a real thing), an increasing number of healthcare professionals are even prescribing time in nature.
The research implies that it’s beneficial for everyone, but there’s good reason to believe that it can be particularly beneficial for people who are driven, Type A, and obsessive-compulsive, because they’re faced with certain mental and physical challenges that being in nature can help with. Spending time in nature can help to balance a personality that is weighted far too heavily on the side of control, planning, perfecting, achieving and fixing.
In case it’s not obvious, I will be discussing non-threatening nature in this post. Hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires can all have the opposite effect on us. Let’s acknowledge that nature can be terrifying and deadly, but see what we can make of its many benefits.
Benefits of Engaging with Nature
Here are some of the results of spending time in nature that research has identified:
Why Spending Time in Nature Helps
I could go into the theoretical reasons that it’s good for us, but it gets kind of wonky. And it’s probably no surprise to you that because nature sustained us in our evolution, when we don’t feel a connection with it, we feel–on an unconscious level–that something primary is missing. While it is unconscious, we’re hardwired to be in nature. And while it can be threatening at times, our ancestors experienced nature as their fundamental ally, not to be taken for granted.
Most of us are now like fish out of water. We’re no longer in the setting that we evolved to live in, and no longer connected to the force that nurtured us.
Recall, for a moment, what it feels like when you reunite with someone who’s been most helpful to you in your life, someone you’ve felt completely comfortable with. After not seeing them for years, you feel whole again.
For some people that might feel like “mother.” For others, “Mother Nature” might be the supportive mother they never had. For still others, the best analogy would be a partner that has been supportive. The issue with nature though, is that feeling disconnected from it is very deep and usually very unconscious–you don’t miss them in the same way you would miss a parent or partner.
But beyond the theories, and at least as importantly, there is something intangible and liberating about nature that can serve as compensation for a life lived by rules, schedules, and planning.
The Challenge of Spending Time in Nature for People Who Are Driven
But if nature is so clearly so good for us, why do I have to bother encouraging you to engage with it? Because if you’re driven, type A or compulsive, it’s probably fallen very low on your to-do list. It’s not something you do to feel productive.
You might love nature, enjoy it, and believe in its benefits, but, like most compulsives, you’re good at delaying gratification, and you put it off. More “urgent” tasks too often eclipse “important” tasks such as being outdoors.
As I pointed out in my book, The Healthy Compulsive, a crucial task for compulsives is to clearly name your priorities—to recall what’s most important to you in life—and to live your life based on those priorities. Compulsives famously “miss the point” of life. Experiencing nature doesn’t always make it onto the priority list.
But it should.
Hijacking The Natural Experience for Achievement
As with exercise and other activities originally embarked on to improve well-being, being in nature can end up serving other, less healthy, purposes. It can be hijacked to deal with insecurity by trying to boost self-esteem.
Many compulsives who do spend time in nature end up making an ambitious challenge out of it: “How fast, high, or far can I go? How much danger can I tolerate?” Hikers interested only in achievement (peak-baggers, we call them), can reach the top of a mountain without engaging with nature a bit. This, of course, can detract from the possible benefits and wear deeper ruts in the compulsive style.
7 Particular Benefits for Driven, Type A and Obsessive-Compulsive Personalities
Obsessive and compulsive patterns can be really hard to break. As a supplement to psychotherapy or other psychological work on yourself, a steady diet of being in nature can improve your chances for change.
1. Because it’s a physical, full-body experience, immersing yourself in nature can interrupt obsessive and compulsive ruts such as overworking, overthinking, and the endless drama of self-evaluation: “Will I get it right? Will I succeed in being a good person?” In nature, “I” becomes submerged in something much bigger. We are no longer the central performer, but part of a chorus.
2. Nature can encourage a larger perspective. Compulsives tend to get stuck trying to control details. Some slight imperfection we had been obsessed with can become dwarfed by the grander scale of nature. You can have a visceral experience of things being out of your control—in a good way.
3. Taking time off from being productive to engage with nature can expose us to the very anxiety we need to face when we aren’t being productive. You’ll realize that the world won’t fall apart when you aren’t at the office or the computer.
4. Aside from the costs of transportation, nature is free. When you remember, and experience, that the best things in life are free, it can diminish your emphasis on money.
5. It offers incentive to slow down and savor, to be in the present moment rather than planning what you need to do next.
6. It’s physically less constricting. In our efforts to produce, fix, control and perfect, our bodies become tight. In nature the body has space and freedom to unwind.
7. Nature can evoke a sense of awe, something we can’t plan or control much less fathom. This sort of inspiration can fuel and supplement the more “rational” work we do for our well-being. Without it we may stagnate.
What Does Engaging with Nature Mean?
You’ve probably noticed that I keep talking about engaging with nature, not simply walking around outside. It seems that the more you actually connect with nature, the more impact it will have on you. The Japanese call it “forest bathing.” The idea is to immerse yourself in nature, using all of your senses to bridge the gap between you and the world that sustained us in the past:
• Listen to the sound of the wind in the trees.
• Smell the flowers, the trees and the soil.
• Touch the beech tree and savor its smooth texture.
• See the beauty of the landscape. Notice each of the colors.
• Taste the wild blueberries and raspberries.
Healing Nature Deficit Disorder
As an admission, I’m a volunteer trail maintainer for the New York New Jersey Trail Conference. When I’m walking my assigned trail I do fix things: I clear downed trees, I build stream crossings, and I paint new blazes when they’re needed. I am productive. But I also make it a point to slow down and savor everything on the path. Productivity and savoring nature are not necessarily exclusive. I hike most weekends when the weather is good, because I’ve learned how important it is for me. Otherwise, there’s something essential missing.
All of the suggestions here can help lift depression and dissolve rigidity. But one walk in the park will not change you permanently. It takes consistent engagement over time to loosen the mood that results from trying to control, fix and perfect. Some researchers suggest that two hours each week is minimal for it to have an effect.
For people who are ruled by thinking and doing at the expense of feeling, ruled by perfection at the expense of passion, and ruled by mechanical planning at the expense of spontaneity and joy, engagement with nature is one part of a treatment plan that can restore a sense of being truly alive.
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