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A Prescription For Nature

The value of being outside surrounded by nature cannot be overstated. Now that the snow has arrived, some of us are less inclined to want to go outside, but with shorter days and less sunshine, our mental health can suffer. Spending time in nature no matter the season, especially an extended time that includes overnight increases well-being, self-esteem, and mood, reduces anger, and improves general psychological well-being with positive effects on emotions and behaviour.

A really interesting study was done in Finland (published in 2019) about the effects of being in nature on the well-being of families and young people from a relational perspective. Of course, their findings are relevant to individuals regardless of age or family status. They found that outdoor life allows people to engage in basic everyday activities at a slower rhythm and enables intensive engagement with both their companions and the environment. Instinctually, parents naturally connect with their children in simple ways, by watching them play and helping them climb a hill or jump across a stream. In a similar way, couples find themselves engaging with each other at a deeper level. Even when outside on your own, feeling the breeze on your skin or reaching out and using a tree trunk to steady your steps when climbing a hill can be a grounding experience.

Stepping out of the monotony of daily life and the many things people do “automatically” such as pouring a cup of coffee in the morning, getting dressed, etc., become something different when you’re staying in a cabin or tent with limited amenities. Monotony becomes intention, intention leads to being present, and being present in the moment aids healing.

Being in nature also improves sleep patterns. People who are stressed are likely not sleeping as well as they need to. This study found in everyday life, getting enough sleep can become a central issue in terms of well-being. Being in nature helps the nervous system calm down in the evenings making it easier to fall asleep. Staying overnight in nature seems to enhance well-being by enabling people to pay attention to the natural rhythms of the day and night. This is not only good for everyday life but for someone who has experienced trauma, this could be an effective way to help re-establish disrupted rhythms, including sleep, which is known to aid one's stress response and increase coping ability.

Spending time outdoors helps people to see they have choices, it can take them from defeat to empowerment, it creates space for expressing different emotions, and it provides opportunities for developing diverse skills. Encounters with the natural environment can be an effective way to bring calm to a person’s life and return to them a sense of hope. It can help bring them to a place where they are able to perceive possibilities and make better choices.

There is an organization that thinks this is such a needed practice for people, nature should be prescribed! They are called PaRx. This British Columbia based organization is partnered with the B.C. Parks Foundation and health-care providers across British Columbia to offer patients nature prescriptions. Programs have also recently launched in Ontario and Saskatchewan as well. Prescriptions are being given to people who are suffering anything from depression to heart disease. Patients in these new programs work with healthcare professionals and oftentimes the prescription of nature is in combination with other treatments and support as needed.

How amazing would it be to have caregivers, not only Doctors and Psychologists but anyone who helps people, who understand the healing value of nature enough that they would prescribe it? You don’t need a PhD to write this script! And even more amazing, that a place could exist for people who have experienced trauma, where they could be sent to “fill their prescription”?! Butterfly Way seeks to be that place.

Most of us have been given a prescription for something. I was recently given a prescription to treat high cholesterol. Between my Doctor, the Pharmacist, and myself, together we will be monitoring my health pretty closely for the next little while. Our approach at Butterfly Way is similar. It’s not enough to send someone out into the wilderness and expect the trees are going to do all the work. That would be like me taking one pill and expecting to return to perfect health. That would be nice! But unrealistic.

If you’ve been following Butterfly Way, you may recall when my family was in crisis a number of years ago, I had friends who helped us by giving us a place to go because we needed space and time to heal, somewhere we could feel safe and actually rest. The first place we went to was a condo at a resort in Collingwood. It felt safer than my home but with two toddlers, it was a challenge not to have our own things, be in an unfamiliar place, and try to hide my swollen, teary eyes after crying all night long. The second place we went to, was a small cottage near Burks Falls on a very quiet lake. This was a much better environment for us. What was missing in each place was connection. We were really isolated in both places and for different reasons. Had someone been there who knew what we were going through and was able to offer some support and a few tools to go home with, we might have coped with what was ahead of us in a different way.

A fully integrated approach to healing is what is needed to truly help people. What does that look like? An integrated approach to healing involves a continuum of care. Past, present, future. It starts with a Doctor or Counsellor, maybe even a good friend or Pastor who knows what is going on. Alongside various forms of therapy, medication, psychotherapy, Spiritual care, a prescription for nature - but not solo out in the wilderness with no support close by. Supportive respite, a place for the weary sojourner to heal and refresh their souls. Being in nature, in an intentional, safe environment designed to promote rest and facilitate healing. Having support to return home to extends the continuum of care, increasing overall benefits.

They say it only takes being in nature for two hours a week to increase your well-being. So here’s a prescription for you! There are some side effects, however. You may experience reduced stress and anxiety, increased energy, overall better mood, less pain, a stronger heart and you might even live longer.

Repeat as necessary.

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