The blue-black of the early morning sky begins to differentiate itself from the cold, silently churning ocean as faint cracks of light appear on the horizon. It feels as if the world is devoid of sound or action.
Each splash and stroke on my way out to the lineup sounds as if it's the first the world has ever heard – helping chip away at the darkness. Static hues eventually give way to more energetic purples, pinks and oranges. Within this daily changing of the guard, as I bob in silence with eyes still dilated, there is a moment where the colors of the ocean and the sky blend into a monochromatic, mercury world. This is my favorite moment in nature, a moment that – as it turns out – is entirely therapeutic.
As lovers of the outdoors, we each have our own version of this moment that brings levity to an otherwise serious world. Maybe it’s standing at the top of Half Dome, hearing the rushing rapids of the Colorado River, or a body-surf session at Sandy Beach. Whatever your kick, studies show that increasing your exposure to wild environments reduces stress and improves well-being.
For river guide Andrew Taylor, it was these transformative effects of nature and adventure that led him to develop a new way to help young adults struggling with addiction and depression – a form of adventure-based therapy that encourages a connection to the outdoors.
Hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah, Taylor fell in love with the 'Pura Vida' life and landscape in Costa Rica and realized that the poignant and challenging experiences out on the river can do a whole lot of good to those who need help overcoming mental and emotional struggles.
"During my time guiding on the rivers, I loved it; I didn't just enjoy it. I felt that there was something profound and deep about the experience we were providing, that I think I connected with more than most," Taylor tells ASN.
In response, he partnered with leading wilderness therapy company Aspiro in 2013 to develop a three-pillared program rooted in Costa Rica’s stunning terrain, comprised of wilderness, adventure and therapy. The program is aptly named Pure Life.
The program focuses on helping young adults, high school to college age, with trauma, depression, substance abuse and anxiety by engaging them in the outdoors.
This idea isn’t exactly a new one. In the 1800s, visionary Henry David Thoreau wrote his heart out about nature and it's necessity in our lives. Today, scientific studies show the mechanisms and tangible benefits of your brain on nature.
The experiences we have in the outdoors actually shape our ever-evolving brains. This concept of “neuroplasticity” is explored at length by Wallace J. Nichols, marine biologist and author of the bestselling Blue Mind. The author delves into the minutiae of how nature, specifically bodies of water, can impact our lives by reducing stress, cultivating a peaceful mind and improving overall well-being.
Water, as Nichols describes in thorough detail, inspires, soothes and challenges us and cultivates feelings of joy and awe. There is a basic, involuntary response to feeling, hearing, smelling, seeing, thinking and tasting water that lies in the oldest parts of our brain and ultimately brings about an emotional response.
Studies have shown that even simply walking in nature reduces rumination, or negative activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex of the brain associated with depression. These “positive distractions” reduce rumination which can lead to depression.
This is the basis for Pure Life’s dynamic approach to therapy – taking to the outdoors to help young adults with the challenges of life.
During their stay – which is personalized by individual needs and can last anywhere between 2 to 4 months – students experience constant adventures that promote and strengthen self-efficacy, as well as individual and group therapy sessions led by licensed and certified therapists.
The failures and triumphs of learning to surf, rock climb, backpack and white water raft – just to name a few – fortify the students’ self belief in being able to complete tasks and finish goals. Staff then help the students apply this newfound self-belief to their personal lives.
"There are so many novel experiences that show the students a different way to experience and enjoy the world," explains Taylor. “Surfing, hiking, climbing, camping, rafting are all inherently difficult. But it's overcoming the early failures, to show yourself that you can do these things that bring about positive change.”
In fact, each one of us is actually participating in our own ecotherapy. No, this isn't a kitsch-y new science, but an emergent approach to mental and emotional health. The basis for ecotherapy is the idea that people are connected to and impacted by their natural environment. And it represents more than just a school of thought – our physiological processes support the science behind nature’s positive impacts on us.
Endorphins and their euphoric effect are the reason you feel like superman coming out of a barrel at Rocky Point. That’s dopamine coursing through your veins when you’re 60 feet up a rock wall, sport climbing in Boulder Canyon. It's oxytocin (not just coffee) that fills your brain with that warm and fuzzy feeling as you make breakfast at camp, as the sun rises above Crater Lake.
“The feeling of accomplishment you get finally standing up on that surfboard or topping-out on a climb helps the students to establish healthier behavioral patterns,” Taylor adds. "Our students come to us with negative coping mechanisms and we give them the opportunity to not be looked at as patients, but to be active participants in learning how to take care of their mental health and how to take care of themselves in the outdoors."
The pursuit of happiness is different for everyone. Getting out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to see the sunrise in a cold ocean covered head-to-toe in neoprene is hardly everyone's direct route to joy and fulfillment. But whether it's camping with friends, biking trails, backcountry skiing or just a walk on the beach, science has identified one common denominator: The dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin that pave the neural roads to happiness in our brains can be found just by heading outside.
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