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Wilderness Therapy and the Nervous System: How Slowing Down Promotes Healing

Mariah Loftin, MA, LPC | Clinical Director & Senior Clinical Therapist | Young Adults

A Different Emphasis

Wilderness therapy is an acute intervention through which students step out of the pressures of life and reevaluate their relationship with themselves and others. Most often, our students come from environments with a bombardment of stimuli and social pressures. There are pressures from work, school, social media, phone notifications, emails, and oh, don’t get hit by that car! Attention is splintered, and these pressures give the impression that multitasking is essential to survival.

No wonder our young people are overwhelmed. There is an expectation that they should be performing and thriving, yet they don’t have the coping skills to deal with everything. If we throw in anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and other mental health issues, the result is a perfect storm. Our students are coping and adapting the best they know how, however sometimes it is not enough.

Now imagine coming from this context and being immersed in the wilderness. The emphasis is not on multitasking. It isn’t on giving and receiving enough likes, comments, and follows. It’s not about due dates or clocking in. The emphasis is on slowing down, connecting with others, finding success and confidence in accomplishing tasks, developing coping skills, reconnecting with healthy habits, and simply being in nature.

Slowing down in nature is part of why wilderness therapy works.

Forest Bathing

In the mountains or canyon country, students at Open Sky slow down and connect with the scents, sights, sounds, and clean air of the wilderness. Current research coming out of Japan calls this Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. Forest bathing is when one intentionally connects with nature through the senses, which supports the biological process of settling down the nervous system.

Researcher Lea Neuberg conducted a meta-analysis in which she compiled studies on how nature impacts the nervous system. Essentially, her findings highlighted that people who spend time in nature have positive physiological responses, such as a decrease in systolic and diastolic blood pressure and significant reductions in certain stress hormones. Spending even two hours in nature resulted in positive effects on people’s nervous systems.

Now imagine spending far more than those two hours in nature in the context of wilderness therapy. Consider the impact that has on a student’s nervous system. Research has found that this actually primes students for healing and connection.

Fight–Flight–Freeze vs. Social Connection

The nervous system is responsible for keeping us alive with instinctual reactions to our surroundings. In other words, the familiar “fight, flight, or freeze” modes. Those states are incredible at protecting us when we are being attacked. However, many people remain in those states at all times. Psychological experts such as Peter Levine, Stephen Porges, and Cheryl Sanders have been researching how remaining in these protective states actually inhibits our bodies from functioning physiologically and can also prevent us from connecting with others and ourselves. Getting out of “fight, flight, or freeze” is essential to healing and connection.

Let’s compare the physiological and emotional responses to these various states:

  • Freeze: Dorsal Vagal state (Parasympathetic nervous system)
    • Increased: insulin activity, endorphins that help numb and raise the pain threshold
    • Decreased: heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, immune system performance, facial expressions, social behavior
    • Emotional responses: Depression, numb, hopelessness, helplessness, dissociation
    • This is an emergency state; it is not healthy for our body to remain in this state.
  • Fight/Flight: Sympathetic state (Sympathetic Nervous system)
    • Increased: blood pressure, heart rate, release of adrenaline
    • Decreased: digestion, immune system performance, relational ability
    • Emotional responses: Panic, fear, anxiety, worry, anger, frustration, rage
    • This is an emergency state; it not healthy for our body to remain in this state.
  • Social Engagement: Ventral Vagal State (Where we want to be)
    • Increased: digestion, immune system performance, circulation to vital organs, ability to relate and connect
    • Decreased: defensive Responses
    • Emotional responses: Curiosity, compassion, safety, connection, contentment, presence
    • This state primes us for connection and healing.

Matthew Lieberman, a social psychologist and neuroscientist, wrote a book called Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. He wrote that just as human beings have a basic need for food and shelter, we also have a basic need to belong to a group and form relationships. To the brain, social pain feels a lot like physical pain—a broken heart can feel like a broken leg. Social connections are as important to our survival and flourishing as the need for food, safety, and shelter.

How Wilderness Therapy Supports Connection and Healing

The wilderness in wilderness therapy encourages forest bathing, which supports students as they enter into the ventral vagal state. Students are then primed for connection. Open Sky supports an environment that is rich in opportunities for students to connect: to themselves, to their peers, to their families, and eventually, to the world they return to.

Connections begin to form through wilderness tasks such as tandem bow drilling, building shelters, and meal preparation. They are further developed through things like peer mentor relationships, therapy groups, conflict resolution, and encouragement during challenges like hiking and learning new skills. The opportunities to connect in an inherently calm and distraction-free wilderness setting are instrumental to the healing that takes place at Open Sky.

December 11th, 2019

Mariah Loftin, MA, LPC | Clinical Director & Senior Clinical Therapist | Young Adults