Nature heartbreak illustration
Research has demonstrated that spending time in nature can help with everything from anxiety to attention deficit disorder to high blood pressure. (Illustration: Overearth/iStock/Getty)
Adventures in Audio

Can Nature Heal Heartbreak?

Nature heartbreak illustration

In recent years, research has demonstrated that spending time in nature can help with everything from anxiety to attention deficit disorder to high blood pressure. Florence Williams knows this as well as anyone: her celebrated 2017 book The Nature Fix explained the science behind the many physiological and emotional benefits of being in natural environments. So when she went through a painful divorce from her husband of 25 years, she turned to the outdoors for healing—and chronicled her experiences in her latest book, Heartbreak. In this episode, we eavesdrop on a conversation between Williams and Outside contributing editor Elizabeth Hightower Allen to learn about broken-heart syndrome (a real medical condition), the chemical explanation for rebound relationships, and whether taking a solo river trip immediately after a breakup is the best idea.


This episode is brought to you by Visit Mississippi, a wonderland for outdoor lovers. Learn more about all the adventures to be had across Mississippi at visitmississippi.org.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

[Advertisement]

[Episode begins]

Maren Larsen (Host): This is the Outside Podcast

A few years back, Outside magazine published a story about a grassroots movement of doctors prescribing time outdoors as treatment for a wide rage of conditions. The physicians writing these prescriptions weren’t going rogue; they were reacting to new research showing that nature can help us with everything from anxiety and attention deficit disorder to high blood pressure.

Personally, I love that modern science is showing us what Outside has long preached: that heading out our doors is really good for us. But lately, I’ve also been feeling a bit frustrated. Because what I really want to see is evidence that nature might also heal something I deal with far too frequently: a broken heart

You see, I'm something of a reluctant breakup expert. I've been dumped, I've done the breaking, I've come to many well-reasoned mutual splits. In my mid-20s, I already have go-to breakup sweatpants, a go-to breakup ice cream (lemon) , and go-to breakup movies (birds of prey and ten things I hate about you) And, of course, I have some grim post-breakup stories, like the time I got through a particularly heinous grieving period by eating nothing but pizza for four days straight.

Other times, though, I've turned to the outdoors. I've convinced myself to go backpacking, and taken a weeklong solo road trip, and gotten into trail running. Sometimes this approach works. Sometimes ... it doesn't. And I've always wondered why.

So I was thrilled when Outside magazine contributing editor Florence Williams published her newest book in February. It's called Heartbreak: a Personal and Scientific Journey, and among other topics, it investigates whether or not mountains and rivers really can restore us after a devastating breakup. And I was even more thrilled when I learned that Elizabeth Hightower Allen, another Outside contributing editor, would be interviewing Florence for the Outside Book Club. This was a conversation I had to listen in on. 

Florence Williams: People who've been dumped, we end up thinking about our departing, loved one 85% of our waking hours. Like you really become obsessed. You want to know, like, what are they doing? Who are they with? what are they posting on social media? 

Elizabeth Hightower Allen: I think that's going to make a lot of people feel better that they are only at 83%.

Larsen: It's true, I did feel better. Hearing Florence discuss the awful post-breakup obsession period in terms of hard numbers made me think I might actually be normal. As Elizabeth later pointed out to me, this is what Florence does. 

Allen: Her great gift is to take all the science and all these, all this research that you can barely wrap your head around and all these substances in the brain and parts of the brain, and really translated into lay terms, funny terms, but also like what it means for us, you know?

Larsen: If you've been a listener for a while, you're familiar with Florence's work -- and her voice. She's been a part of a number of episodes for us over the years, though she is best known for her 2017 book, The Nature Fix, which explored the science behind nature's positive effects on the brain. 

But right after The Nature Fix came out, Florence's husband of 25 years told her he wanted a divorce. Given everything she'd just reported, she knew that wilderness would be part of her recovery process. And as a journalist, she was determined to document her journey, as Elizabeth puts it--

Allen: to the far shores of heartbreak, whatever that might look like.

Larsen: So today, I'm inviting you to join me in eavesdropping on a conversation about the kind of pain that tests the limits of nature's ability to heal us. We'll start at the hardest point: the moment just after the breakup. 

Allen: So when everything sort of fell apart, were you like, oh, good nature can fix this? Or did that seem like a cruel joke where you like, yeah, let's see you fix this nature.

Williams: You know, everything seemed like a cruel joke. absolutely. you know, I had just turned 50. My marriage of 25 years was ending. but I. It was, you know, logical that I would turn to the nature fix for some comfort and some salvation. you know, I had just reported this book about how nature can make us feel happier and healthier and more creative. And so I was like, I need the lessons from that book more than I ever thought I would. it, it became a logical place to turn for sure. This is really the first book where you've been so vulnerable about yourself. And I feel like it's such a gift to your readers, but how did that feel for you? Did you resist, revealing that much or was that cathartic? 

Williams: You know, it, it actually didn't feel that different. I mean, in, in some ways, as you mentioned, my other books, there was definitely way less of me in them, but I was kind of used to using my body as sort of a proxy, you know, for a way to talk about, for example, you know, chemicals in our bloodstream or I had toxic chemicals in my breast milk. I sent that off to a lab, you know, so there, there were, I guess I was just used to, you know, speaking in the first person about some of the science that I was trying to understand.

So when I underwent this huge cataclysm, emotionally in my heart. I guess it's still just felt sort of natural to be like, okay, what does the science have to say about this? And maybe there's something here, you know, that could be interesting or helpful to other people. Although initially I wasn't really thinking about the other people, you know, at first I was just like, I need to understand what's happening to me. I'm going to put on my reporter's hat. I'm going to try to learn what I can. 

Allen: And you were having, you were having some serious bodily reactions to this. 

Williams: Yeah. And that totally surprised me. I mean, I had been married for 25 years. I had met my, the man who would be my husband when I was 18. So I'd never experienced this before. I experienced grief before, you know, I lost my mother when I was in my twenties, but, it just felt like a whole different level.

And part of it was that I did feel it so clearly. the pain registering. In my body. I, I just literally felt like my stomach was in a different place. You know, my chest felt tight. I knew I wasn't sleeping well. I was losing all this weight, that I didn't want to be losing. I, the way I described it in the book is I felt like my body was plugged into a faulty electrical socket. You know, there was this kind of extreme agitation, and also exhaustion at the same time.

Larsen: I'm going to interrupt here to say what I'm betting a lot of you are thinking: that the physical symptoms of heartbreak that Florence describes sure sound familiar. As she writes in Heartbreak, at the extremes, losing love can result in what's known as broken heart syndrome, or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy. It presents just like your average heart attack, but isn't caused by an an arterial blockage; instead it's a weakened ventricle caused by a rush of stress hormones. And then there's the impact that being dumped can have on our nervous systems. 

Williams: Around 20 10, 20 11, 20 13, there was some, I think really pretty important studies showing that people process social pain in the same or similar, various, very similar parts of the brain, that we process physical pain, like a toothache, and also parts of the brain associated with craving and yearning and addiction. 

The anthropologist, Helen Fisher pointed out to me, and she's someone who usually studies the neuro-transmitters of falling in love, you know, things like dopamine and serotonin, you know, the rush we get from falling into. But she's also put people on a brain scanner who have fallen out of love and who have been rejected by their lovers.

And,what she says is that just because you've lost love doesn't mean that you stop loving, you know, in, in so many ways, our bodies, especially over a years with a partner really. They, they sort of co-regulate with this other person. I don't know our nervous systems, expect that other person to be there.

Our heart rates line up, our cortisol levels align, even our brainwaves sort of work in synchrony when we're next to another person that we love in a brain scanner, performing a task. And that doesn't happen when we're with a stranger in the brain scanner, 

Larsen: You hear that and you understand why, right after a relationship ends, our daily tasks suddenly feel like monumental struggles. Our biological systems are literally all out of whack. And as Florence reports, humans are not alone in how we react to breakups. Consider the case of the the humble -- and adorable -- prairie vole. 

Williams: All mammals are social and,social bonding, you know, attachment is absolutely imperative to the way mammals learn, to how, they feed to how they raise their young up to how they mate. But most mammals actually aren't monogamous but Prairie voles are. And in fact, they may even be more monogamous than humans, at least in modern life, because we know about 75% of Prairie vole couples, in the wild, will stay together, until death. And, and Right now, you know, with humans, I think it's about, 71%.

So I spent some time, in this lab at university of Colorado, Dr. Zoe Donaldson, and I, I call it the heartbreak hotel. 'cause she, she breeds these Prairie voles and she'll mate them, she'll put a male and a female together. and sure enough, they ended up bonding and, raising young and so on, but she'll create a little Prairie vole divorce, and she'll separate them. And, it's interesting what happens. I mean, both the Prairie voles, sort of freak out, they get really stressed out without their partner. the one who's like sort of left behind in the cage will press a lever. If he thinks his beloved is behind the door, he'll sort of press this lever over and over again, to try to, you know, access his partner again. 

Allen: Oh, poor guy. 

Williams: Poor guy. And, and, and the, the left prairie vole the bereft prairie vole will also act in ways that seemed to represent sort of depression or anxiety in humans.

So like they won't explore their environments very much. they'll sort of give up, if they're put in a beaker full of water, they won't swim out. They'll they do the sort of thing called, passive coping, where they just sort of give up. 

Allen: I feel like that's a lot of us right now during the pandemic 

Williams: Exactly. They're not flourishing. 

Larsen: But here's where things get interesting. While both prairie voles and humans are certainly not flourishing after a breakup -- see my pizza-induced hibernation -- we can sometimes experience an important chemical side effect in the later stages of heartbreak that ... helps us along towards our next relationship. 

Allen: So fast forward a little bit where there's a little bit more of your body coming to life. you've been on your own for a little bit. And if I may just say it, you are really interested in sex. Like I have missed out on so much for all these years. I mean, can you explain what your body was wanting at this point? Because that was one of the most interesting and heartening points of the book for me was that there you were all on your own worried you'd be alone forever, but you were really having a lot of activity.

Williams: Yeah. I was having certain cravings and, I, I did feel sort of woken up in this unexpected way. I mean, I'd been with the same man for 32 years and, There is something that happens to people's testosterone levels after divorce. It turns out and, um, this has been done in men. It's been shown in women, their testosterone levels increase. You know, the reason for this is sort of interesting, maybe it's because, once you are feeling like you're sort of alone in the world, you might need to prepare for battle, you know, you might need to try to win your mate back, or you might need to seek a new mate.

And so, so for whatever reason, we start pumping out more testosterone, and one of the ways it manifests. Well, it can manifest also an increased aggression,you know, especially in men, but, but also in this kind of like sexual arousal, you're like, whoa, there are a lot of like attractive men out there and I've been kind of starved for touch, and this might be really, really nice.

Larsen: So now we know: those rebound flings that get us so excited? We can blame our hormones. Also, I should add that the science is still out on how to prevent bounce-back relationships from causing further emotional destruction, so proceed at your own risk.

Coming up after the break: Florence explains how nature -- if administered correctly -- can heal a broken heart. 

[Advertisement]

Larsen: From listening in to the first part of author Florence Williams's conversation with Elizabeth Hightower Allen, we learned about the biological impacts that a breakup can have on us ... and on those poor little prairie voles. But I was most interested in hearing what Florence had to say about the ways that we can can begin to heal those wounds. The answer, it turns out, involves seeking out a uniquely powerful medicine: awe. 

Allen: What happens to our brains on awe?

Williams: Yeah. The science of awe is so interesting and pretty new in terms of the study of positive emotions. we know that when people experience awe, and, and by the way, often it is from the natural world. Although it's also, you know, from a symphony or perhaps from a, cathedral but, when people feel this, it's interesting, their brain sort of stops for a minute. So, if you are someone who's cycling, negative thoughts, and you're coming around a bend and all of a sudden you see the full moon rising on the horizon.

You know, you have the classic, awe response where your sort of your, your, eyes widen and your eyebrows raise and your jaw drops. And you're like, whoa. 

And you instantly stop thinking whatever it was you were thinking about. And you're sort of amazed for a moment.

And in that moment, you're doing something really interesting, which is that you are trying to find an understanding of something. You might not sort of expect. And that itself is also helpful because you're sort of inventing new knowledge schema, where you're creating this window of learning about something as you're trying to understand, because one of the definitions for, for awe is that it's a little bit unexpected.

It also, we know from studies of people experiencing awe that they, they feel like their own body size is smaller. They feel less significant. I think this is something we can all relate to when you're lying there, looking at the Milky way or something. And you just feel like this grain of sand in the universe. That turns out to also be a very positive, psychological feeling and you've sort of feel more connected to the world around you. We also know from studies, you feel more connected to other people, you behave in ways that are more prosocial you sort of become a nicer person.

Larsen: Okay, that all tracks, but I also know that when you're at the lowest point of heartbreak, say in an ice-cream-and-sweatpants cocoon, contemplating the universe and our place in it isn't going to make me or a lot of other people feel nicer or remotely ready to put ourselves out there again. As Florence tells it, that's probably because we're not yet ready to be open to the power of awe ... though, we can get there if we try.

Williams: When I heard about all the, you know, poor health outcomes of people who are divorced, you know, 23% increased risk of early death, 29% increased risk of heart attack in the first nine years, increased risk of dementia, alzheimer's you know, all these inflammatory diseases. I was so bummed out and I, I then talked to a psychologist named Paula Williams, the university of Utah, and she said, Yeah, yeah, the statistics are really bad if you look at a population level, but we know that there are some individuals who are really resilient that can sort of sail through life's tragedies.

And we, if we look at their personality traits, you know, what is it about these people? The one that really seems to stand out is this openness. And there are a lot of different facets to this category, including things like, curiosity, Some adventure seeking or novelty seeking,growth and a growth mindset, no, on and on. But one of them is this, what she calls a sort of aesthetic sensitivity people who love looking at beauty and who respond to beauty and art, especially by getting the goosebumps. If you're someone who feels the goosebumps, that that means she thinks that you're prone to awe. Okay. So I didn't know how prone to awe I was. but I found it wildly hopeful that she said, this is actually one of the few personality traits that you can influence, that you can learn how to be more open to beauty and open to awe.

Williams: And, And you know, she'll say this is one of the reasons why we need arts education, in schools, for example, because it's a critical tool for helping kids become more resilient later in life. If they can see beauty, appreciate it,find comfort in beauty. And I had never heard this. I had never heard that, you know, beauty could be an antidote to heartbreak. I mean, that's, that's like so heartening that beauty is medicine for us. Beauty is medicine. And of course I knew one place to find it for me, which was outside. 

Larsen: So Florence set out, looking for the kind of awe experiences that her research hinted would help her get past the pain of her divorce. Ever since she'd been a little girl, river trips had been a big part of her life, so that's where she started. 

Williams: During childhood summers, I used to drive out west in my dad's van with these canoes on top and we would run, wilderness river. so it was sort of a core part of my identity even before the marriage. And so when the marriage ended, I felt like I wanted to sort of reclaim that connection as a you know core part of myself and not just something, that was kind of, marital. 

Allen: Right. Right. So, so when you decided like you know what, I need to make a big pilgrimage to nature here. I want to get back on a wilderness river. You said you wanted to calm the eff down. That's what you did. You decided to go down the green river for 30 days and two weeks of it solo. 

Williams: Yeah, And I had never spent a night out alone in the wilderness. 

Allen: Wow. 

Larsen: The impulse to escape into a wild place to clear your head is certainly something I can understand. After my last breakup, I went out alone on the ten-day road trip I had planned to take with my ex. And like Florence, I was pretty new to the solo adventure. Which really helps me understand what she went through.

Florence's month-long adventure on the Green river started in Wyoming and ended at the confluence with the Colorado River, in Utah's Canyonlands National Park. It was, she writes in her book, a journey "whose scale matched the enormity of the hole in [her] heart." She spent the first two weeks with family and friends, but for the last half of the trip, she was on her own. Just Florence, her canoe, and the river. 

Allen: I came at it from sort of a cognitive angle, which is that, I've been with the same man since I was 18. I'm now 50. I have never been alone. I've never been alone and I'm terrified of being alone. Like I'm existentially freaked by the idea of being alone for the rest of my life. And so I felt like I needed to learn how to be alone.Well, I love, one thing you said recently, if heartbreak is the metaphor of being alone and unsafe, being in the wilderness alone is actually being alone and unsafe.

Williams: I mean, the reason, the reason our nervous systems and our bodies freak out is because our brains don't make the distinction between being abandoned on the savanna circled by hyenas and just being sort of rejected by our primary attachment partner and love, like our nervous systems respond the same way. They're like, it's suddenly screaming all these alarm bells, you're alone, you're alone, you're alone. Here's a bunch of norepinephrine and adrenaline and all the things you're going to need to, you know, fight and, and flee while you're alone on the savanna. So, so it's kind of weird that I tried to calm down by actually being alone in the world. You know, like looking back on it now, I'm like, whoa, what was I thinking like that wasn't going to calm down my nervous system. 

Allen: Where is your mind on the river?

Williams: Day one really sucked. I am cursing. I'm freaked out. I'm in this like overloaded canoe. It's 104. With a huge fucking heavy toilet. It's 104 degrees out. 

Allen: Oh Florence, 

Williams: And I'm thinking I can't tip this canoe over because I'm alone. And I can't really self rescue like these thousand pounds of gear. There's just so many ways that, that I could screw it up. That would be, you know, devastating, for the, for the trip, but also potentially for myself, I can't step on a scorpion. I can't, you know, light the beach on fire. Um, yeah, I mean, I was kind of freaked out. I was like, I thought this was going to be like solitude and beautiful and peaceful. And instead I'm actually feeling lonely. I'm feeling like freaked out. Where's where are the people who are going to help me get through this? 

Allen: Well, did you blame yourself then? Like I'm not open enough to awe, like, I'm just neurotic and I can't enjoy this beautiful place?

Williams: Yeah, absolutely. I blamed everybody. I blamed my ex. I blamed myself. I blamed the guy who rented me this like falling apart canoe with the splintering – 

Allen: You should!

Williams: – and giving me that damn heavy toilet, which, you know, weighed like a hundred pounds. 

Larsen: I'd like to be able to say that Florence got over her frustration with her gear and with herself and proceeded to have a lovely, healing, affirming time on the river, basking in solitude and doing lots of productive self-reflection. I'd love to say that about my own post-breakup road trip too. But unfortunately for both of us, that's not quite how it went down. 

Williams: I wanted to do a lot of heavy thinking,which, which actually, it was a little bit misguided. It turns out because when you're alone, it's so easy to kind of spiral down into these rabbit holes where, you know, you think negative thoughts. Like I was like, oh, it's all my fault. This happened, you know, I'm such a loser. I have all these flaws. No one's ever gonna love me again. You know, you just like go through these, these, thoughts and there's no one there. You don't have your best girlfriends there to tell you you're being an idiot. 

Allen: Was there ever a moment when the clouds like the mental clouds parted and the sun beam came down from heaven, like, no, you are exactly wonderful the way you are and you're a goddess on this river, 

Williams: no, that didn't really have, I mean, I, I did have moments of peace and beauty. You know, I mean, that was glorious, but I was still definitely thinking it's all your fault this happened. 

Allen: Yeah. Well, when you got off the river, your brother and sister-in-law were like, oh no, no, no, no, no, no, no. We're not supposed to do the hard things on the river. You're supposed to do the hard things afterwards. So how should, what is the right way to go do your wilderness solo to heal from heartbreak?

Williams: Yeah, here. I would defer to my brother-in-law Peter, who he's a Buddhist. And so he's, he's done a lot of these silent retreats where he doesn't talk to anyone, you know, for 10 days at a time, And he said to me, yeah, Florence, you're not supposed to go into those really dark places when you're alone. You're supposed to go into those dark places when you have support. I was like, oh, I didn't get that memo. 

Williams: I spoke to wilderness therapists, who are saying that sort of expedition model of healing is a bunch of crock. Like the healing that can happen on those expeditions happens despite the hardships, not because of them.

You know, for a lot of people who have been through trauma, they don't need to be out of their comfort zone. In order to heal, they actually are always out of their comfort zone and they need to approach nature and being in nature as a place of safety and comfort. they shouldn't be climbing mountains and, you know, scaling descending, wilderness rivers. they should be. Sitting somewhere quiet and lovely and listening to birds and, feeling their nervous systems sort of settle so that they can heal. And I thought, I thought that was profound and interesting. it definitely challenged the way that I had thought about, expeditionary behavior and expeditionary healing. 

Allen: Well, I think there's, there's one thing you wrote, which is that when there's emotional trauma involved, nature's best offering may be the peaceful kind, just helping you calm your nervous system enough to flex your imagination to like in your case, see a future.

Williams: Exactly. I mean, I don't regret that. I did the solo. Like it did make me feel braver. it did make me, you know, feel like I could take care of myself. I think it impressed my kids, you know, my teenagers were like, well, my mom's a badass. And I think that was important, frankly, for them to feel that and to see that 

And, and ultimately, I feel like I did kind of create a story. It took me a long time, took me, took me longer than I wanted, but I did ultimately create the story where, you know what, I have come through this and I'm a better person now than I was before the heartbreak. I feel like my heart is, you know, sort of scarred, but ironically, having been through all that pain and scarring, I feel like now I have a greater capacity for love. 

Larsen: The takeaway for me here, after listening to the real breakup expert, is that nature can absolutely help heal a broken heart. But that doesn't mean that running into the woods while you're still crying your eyes out every day is the best idea. Instead, do whatever you need to get through that first stage of recovery, and then when you do go, make it a trip with close friends. Because you still need support -- especially when you're way out there. And most importantly, know that the pain of heartbreak is real. If anyone doubts you, point them to the research. 

Williams: I really think that we don't take heartbreaks seriously enough. You know, we tend to think it's all in our heads. but in fact, as, as one scientist told me, heartbreak is a hidden landmine of human existence. So I think if you're someone who's going through heartbreak, you really need to take it seriously.

You need to try to get better as soon as you can. And if you know someone who's going through heartbreak, they really need you. They need your support, they need your friendship. and if you're a parent, I think one of the ways we can try to help prevent heartbreak. for our kids is to really teach them some emotional intelligence, teach them to be comfortable with their emotions, teach them to express their emotions, teach them to communicate their needs and through their sort of authentic and vulnerable selves and then hopefully it will be a little bit less heartbreak in the world maybe. 

Allen: That's a great recipe. That's beautiful, thank you. I'm going to have like a manual for the inevitable next heartbreak in my life.

Larsen: Heartbreak: a personal and scientific journey, is available now wherever you get your books.

This episode was written and produced by me, Maren Larsen, and edited by Michael Roberts. Elizabeth Hightower Allen interviewed Florence Williams. 

The Outside Book Club is hosting a live Q&A with Florence on March 9th at 4pm Mountain Standard Time, 7pm Eastern, moderated by Elizabeth. It'll be on Zoom and you need to be an Outside+ member to participate. Go to outsideonline.com/heartbreak for details. 

To join Outside+, go to outsideonline.com/podplus. We're offering new members a 25% discount: just enter the code pod25 at checkout.

This episode was brought to you by Mississippi, a wonderland for outdoor adventurers. Learn more about all the fun to be had across the state at visitmississippi.org. 

Follow the Outside Podcast

Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.