The benefits of nature on the human psyche have long been espoused, but in recent years researchers have discovered that nature therapy can be just as effective against depression and other mental health conditions as traditional therapy or medication.

A study conducted in 2007 found that 90% of those struggling with depression reported higher self-esteem after spending time in nature and almost 75% of the same group felt less depressed. A similar study found that 94% of individuals with known mental illnesses believed that spending time in nature increased their overall mood.

This research shows us that while most of us have a sense that nature can benefit us, there is quantifiable data that demonstrates mental and physical health benefits to spending time in nature.

Benefits of Wilderness Therapy for teens

Nature therapy can have a wide range of benefits for teens struggling with mental health issues, ranging from immune system and health benefits to a reduction in stress and depressive symptoms.

Exposure to nature, particularly forests, provides a massive boost to the human immune system. When people immerse themselves in nature, they breathe in phytoncides, which are airborne chemicals that plants give off that can have profound health benefits.  Breathing in phytoncides helps our body increase NK white blood cells, which are known to kill tumor cells and virus-infected cells. One study found that this effect lasted more than 30 days from a 2-night forest trip.

Wilderness therapy can also help bring attention to the world around you, which can have lasting impacts on improving focus. This can be beneficial to all teens, but particularly for teens with attention disorders. Our normal, hurried lives are busier than ever with competing interests such as school, work, family, and social lives, and trying to focus on too much at once can result in mental draining and fatigue. Nature provides a reset that gives the cognitive portion of our brain a break, which can result in renewed focus and patience. This can have a particularly powerful effect on teens with ADD or ADHD as studies have shown spending time in outdoor environments reduced attention fatigue and associated attention disorder symptoms.

In addition to an increase in focus, Wilderness Therapy can also have other internal mental benefits such as allowing students to develop goals. Working with licensed professionals, students can begin to articulate goals and create a plan for achieving those goals in a safe environment. This internal reflection can also have positive benefits for self-esteem and personal motivation.

Spending time in nature can also have physiological benefits such as a reduction in stress hormones, lowered blood pressure, and improved moods. Being surrounded by a natural environment, even if you’re just sitting there taking in the views, reduces cortisol and adrenaline hormones which are known to cause stress.

Cortisol levels have been steadily increasing due to a lack of physical activity and a growing dependence on technology. Social media and gaming addictions contribute to this phenomenon greatly, and wilderness therapy aims to tackle these effects by taking away the temptation of technology and increasing body movement. This allows students to completely disconnect and reevaluate their relationship to technology.

Why and how nature has a calming effect on our mental health

When we step into nature, we can feel the calming effect it has on our bodies, and that effect is exactly what nature therapy strives to achieve, but how and why does this phenomenon occur? One recent study in 2017 uncovered that this effect is in part achieved by the sounds that we get from the natural environment.

They discovered that sounds like gentle rippling of a brook or gushing winds as they hit the trees can physically alter our mind and bodily systems. This study examined participants that listened to natural sounds vs artificial sounds while their brain activity was measured by an MRI scanner and their autonomic nervous system was monitored by heart rate.

The results indicated that those who were listening to the natural sounds reflected an outward-directed focus of attention, whereas those listening to the artificial sounds had an inward-directed focus of attention, similar to that found in states of anxiety, PTSD, and depression. There was also an associated relaxation of nervous system activity and increased attention capability when listening to the natural sounds compared to the artificial sounds. These results demonstrate that sounds gleaned from nature can help you focus outwardly on the present moment and relax your bodily systems.

An interesting additional finding from this study suggests that the participants baseline emotional and mental state had a large impact on how the interventions affected them. Individuals who came into the experiment with the greatest amount of stress were the ones that had the greatest bodily relaxation improvements after listening to the natural sounds. This finding suggests that nature can particularly benefit those individuals who are experiencing mental and emotional struggles.

Another research study from 2017 found that the imagery and landscapes presented in nature also help to evoke the feeling of calm. The study had participants choose from a list of nature videos with various scenes ranging from deserts to rainforests and researchers monitored the effects. Participants claimed that after seeing the videos, they felt calmer, were better able to communicate with others, felt less anger, and some even said they were able to get better sleep.

A final study examined the effects of participants being prescribed a “nature pill” in which they were asked to spend time in a natural environment 3 times a week for a duration of at least ten minutes each. Researchers measured for levels of cortisol before and after a nature pill every two weeks. The data revealed that just twenty minutes of nature exposure was enough to significantly reduce cortisol levels, but that increasing the time spent in nature could have an ever greater impact physiologically. This reduction in cortisol ultimately resulted in less stressed and happier people.

While science shows us the benefits and calming effect Wilderness Therapy can have, what does it actually look like and what types of activities does it involve?

The various activities that Wilderness Therapy offers

Wilderness Therapy programs offer myriad opportunities to disconnect from the hurried pace of normal life and reconnect with the natural world. These programs, like BlueFire, offer teens a chance to engage in fun and challenging adventure activities, plan and execute multi-day treks, and transform their academic setting into an outdoor classroom.

Clients who come to BlueFire will participate in a variety of outdoor activities that promote healing and self awareness including mountain climbing, backpacking, canoeing, kayaking, and snowboarding. These adventures are fun but they also instill values such as teamwork and responsibility in students.

BlueFire students will also complete multi-day wilderness adventure treks that conclude back at base camp. Our talented instructors will work with students to determine which area of the natural landscape they want to explore from the majestic mountains to the vast boulder fields created from powerful volcanic flows.

Once the destination has been decided, students will work together as a team to map out the route and prepare for the journey ahead by packing food and necessary supplies. They will then be transported to their starting point and then it is up to the group to complete their adventure trek. The experience of planning and executing a wilderness trek has the potential to be transformative as students reap the benefits of proper planning and work through the negative consequences of their decisions during the planning and execution process. The real-time feedback of their every decision allows them to measure their emotional and behavioral reactions which are skills that are immediately transferable in their lives back home.

Wilderness Therapy also offers a powerful opportunity to transform the academic setting. BlueFire helps struggling students realign their academic focus in four simple steps. We first assess each individual student’s learning situation to give us knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses. This allows us to create a learning plan tailored to each client and his individual needs. We then address each student’s educational challenges, creating unique academic goals in line with state and national academic standards.

Once learning objectives have been identified, we utilize nature as a powerful and hands-on learning environment. Our wilderness school provides daily opportunities to learn experientially which has been proven to have positive impacts on social, psychological and intellectual development. Lastly, we focus on teaching translatable academic skills to ease the transition back home so the growth our students have achieved can be sustained in their regular environment.

BlueFire can help

BlueFire Wilderness Therapy is a premier wilderness therapy program for troubled teens struggling with emotional, social, and behavioral challenges. We utilize a comprehensive approach to teen treatment based on research and decades of experience. Our strength is combining clinical expertise, adventure experiences, academic assessments, and a family systems approach.

We utilize highly trained staff, cutting edge technology, and the latest research to create the best environment for change. This environment provides a supportive opportunity for parents and children to reconnect and strengthen their relationship. For more information, please call (208) 502-2326.

Previous reading
Tips for Helping Curb Smartphone Addiction in Teens
Next reading
School Anxiety: How To Help Your Teen This Semester