Don't Call Nature a Cure-All

But do remember that it can be a powerful mental-health tool and go beyond the whitewashed Instagram posts to focus on improving access to the outdoors for those who need it most

Nature is for everyone. (Jenny Bruso)
Photo: Jenny Bruso

Jenny Bruso is the founder of Unlikely Hikers, an inclusive community highlighting the underrepresented outdoorsperson. Here, she’ll share gear reviews for plus-size outdoor enthusiasts as well as her experiences battling stereotypes within the outdoor industry.

You’ve seen it. You’re scrolling through Instagram and it’s one outdoor fantasy highlight after another. The picture-perfect remote landscape, shot from somewhere at a great height. It’s dusk or dawn, and there’s a woman: white, young, thin, tan, with effortlessly cascading hair, looking as though she was flown directly onto a peak or ledge and not at all like she just climbed an actual mountain. Or maybe the person is a man, also white, young, etc., standing on some precarious boulder protruding from a viewpoint. The caption is always some apolitical, inspirational message about good vibes and spreading positivity.

This has become the trope of outdoor social media, but whose life is actually like this? Mine isn’t. I’m always looking for the folks who have something to say about what nature does for their real lives: The people who utilize the outdoors as a part of their self-care practice, whose lives have been changed or even saved by nature. The people who go to the woods to grieve and heal, who hike to stay sober or to not kill themselves.

This isn’t hyperbole. Nature and hiking make my life livable.

It was only seven years ago that I went on the hike that would change the course of my mental wellness. I was wearing clubwear, cowboy boots, and a full face of makeup, feeling really self-conscious about sweating and breathing heavily with other people around. It was 2012, and I was in one of the deepest depressive states I’d ever been in. I had been using meds and therapy off and on up to that point for PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Both treatments helped me tremendously but rarely with lasting results. As whatever medication I was on stopped working, or my insurance changed, or the therapist I was seeing stopped working at the free clinic I was going to—things you deal with when you’re poor and without proper health care—I’d slip back down the rabbit hole until the lights were nearly out, to a place where I did not want to be in the world anymore.

As I made my way up the biggest incline of the trail, pausing regularly to catch my breath and talk myself into continuing, I felt something inside loosen, like a fist unclenching. Despite my labored breathing, I was aware of the sensation of my lungs filling all the way up. Anxiety makes my breathing short and arrhythmic—sometimes I catch myself holding my breath altogether for seconds at a time. Despite self-consciousness, I felt more in my body than I possibly ever had, noticing the way it moved on this new terrain. My body and breathing were in tandem, machinelike. All of my senses were engaged. It didn’t leave a lot of room for cyclical negative thoughts. Every turn revealed something different. What could happen next? This curiosity engaged my creativity. When I reached the highest point of my trek, the turnaround point, I felt like I’d done something so good for myself. I’d found something I needed.

Under the tall trees, I discovered the bliss of how microscopic I am in the universe but also undeniably a part of everything that is. My pain and problems took a back seat to thinking about my body’s needs: water, food, do I need to go to the bathroom? The outdoors has space for me in ways that don’t exist in my daily life among the barrage of messaging about how bodies should look and move, about how women should be. The trail is indifferent to me, to my size, trauma, the stupid things I’ve said or done, the way I’ve hurt people and myself. In nature, I found forgiveness for myself and others.

Nature mirrors what I know to be true: our differences are what make us beautiful and special. The biggest and strangest things are often the most precious. Sameness doesn’t actually exist. Everything changes, everything has a season. I no longer feel shiftless and untethered the way I did growing up. I grew up fast, foregoing many years where my peers still played and felt safe and free. In the outdoors, I rediscovered play and the fun of exploring. It inspires my creativity.

Hiking and being outdoors has become one of the biggest and most consistent tools in my arsenal for managing anxiety and depression. Having the knowledge that I can access this by just going outside, regardless of what I’m going through, is a kind of freedom. Sometimes this freedom only lasts the duration of my time out, but often I’ve been able to take this clarity with me.

There are some stupid memes on social media showing two side-by-side photos of a forest and pills of varying colors and shapes pouring out onto a counter. The forest image contains the words “the only antidepressant I need.” Messaging like this minimizes the very real mental-health crises many of us are going through on a day-to-day basis, especially for Native Americans and queer and trans people. The outdoors is not a cure-all or a substitute for professional mental health care, but it can help. Currently, I’m back on meds, and I’m often about two crises away from getting back into therapy.

We’re overworked, overbooked, and so stressed that we’d rather zone out on our phones or stream internet television to soothe us than find time to get outdoors, understandably so. Getting outdoors requires time and resources that some of us don’t have: the lowest-income people are often living in areas with the least access to traditional green spaces. Still, with a little creativity, I’m certain we can all find ways to engage with nature, in whatever form that takes, within these constraints. Here are some things that can help:

  • As little as five minutes in a green space. Studies show it can improve your mood. A green space is anything not built by humans: an impressive tree at a bus stop, an area with your houseplants, a place where birds are chirping, etc.
  • Do you have a yard? Even a little patch of dirt to sit on? There is a natural antidepressant in dirt! Which explains why I feel a significant boost caring for my houseplants and why the smell of wet earth has such an effect on me.
  • Ninety minutes of walking in nature lessens the activity in the part of our brain associated with depression and repetitive negative thinking.
  • Don’t have 90 minutes or easy access to nature? Just 20 minutes of exercise—it doesn’t have to be outside—can lower cortisol levels, the hormone created from stress. Elevated cortisol can suppress your immune system, lead to insomnia, depression, digestive problems, and other issues.
  • Being too busy isn’t good for us, but some of us are in positions where that can’t be improved (kids, bills to pay, etc.). If you can find even a little wiggle room, schedule your self-care time. I’m not talking about baths or other whitewashed versions of self-care, just scheduled time to do something that makes you feel cared for.
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