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The Health Benefits of a Walk in the Woods

by Alicia Pulsifer Heyburn

The author’s daughter leaping into the new year.

“Go take a hike!” This used to be an aggressive phrase, but now it can be considered a prescription to reduce stress, lower anxiety and create a calming feeling of connectedness.

In 1984, American biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote a book titled Biophilia, in which he claimed that humans possess an inherent connection to nature and other forms of life, which is in part genetic. We have spent almost all our evolutionary history in a natural environment, therefore a “need” to connect to nature may remain within us.

The term biophilia was first described in 1973 as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive” by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm. This is a fitting term to learn in February, our month of valentines and romance. Our innate connection to nature, our love for all that is alive, is waning as our lives become busier, populations shift from rural to urban settings, and we stare hour after hour at the screens of our computers and phones. For most of us, we don’t even know what we are missing – we don’t understand the cause of this loneliness – but the ill-at-ease feeling is manifesting as stress, depression and anxiety, and it is particularly prevalent in children and teenagers.

Social isolation—a lack of meaningful interaction with others—is on the rise. And this is ironic since two-thirds of the world’s population is predicted to live in urban areas by 2050. It’s been called a mass migration to indoors. Yikes! I’d rather watch schools of alewives swim upstream than hordes of school children shuffle indoors. We are living cheek to cheek, penned in by walls, yet each generation feels increasingly alone.

Richard Louv, author of the alarming book Last Child in the Woods, recently wrote in Outside Magazine, “I believe we suffer from species loneliness—a desperate hunger for connection with other life, a gnawing fear that we are alone in the universe. Humans, in fact, are more alone than we’ve ever been. We comprise 0.01 percent of all life on earth, yet we have destroyed 83 percent of wild mammals. Though bacteria and fungi are doing just fine, we’re unlikely to take comfort in their company.”

He advocates for teaching and promoting our deep animal connection through family outings, school and church programs and at nature centers. HHLT is supporting the children of Harpswell in this regard with our Nature Day Camp and hands-on, place-based science programming in all grade levels at Harpswell Community School. Most of the lessons are taught outdoors and a teacher found that her students realized, “That they live in a really neat place where lots of animals live.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety is the most common mental health disorder in the United States, affecting nearly one-third of adolescents and adults. Many teens feel that they can never catch up or satisfy the expectations of teachers, parents and peers. Their phones can deliver so much information – directions, reviews, recipes and ratings – that anxious teens have less experience dealing with unknown or uncontrolled situations. An aspect of anxiety is about avoiding uncertainty and discomfort, yet in a well-meaning effort to help kids avoid what makes them anxious, parents may make it worse if we don’t help our kids learn to cope or problem-solve.

“There is definitely a rise in the identification of kids with serious anxiety,” said Philip Kendall, director of the Child and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Temple University. “They are growing up in an environment of volatility, where schools have lockdowns, where there are wars across borders. We used to have high confidence in our environment — now we have an environment that anticipates catastrophe.”

This is where the natural environment can help. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Environment and Behavior showed that after a mere 15-minute walk in a natural setting, participants experienced:

  • Greater capacity to pay attention
  • Positive emotions
  • Ability to reflect on a life problem
  • Energy
  • A sense of belonging to something larger than themselves

Getting out in nature can create a feeling of being away (not to be confused with being “from away”!), in which a person feels a sense of escape from the demands of daily life while generating a connection to the vastness and wholeness of a natural setting.

In their series “Rewilding the American Child” Outside Magazine is asking adults to help “unplug a generation of screen-addicted kids from their devices, give them freedom to roam (unsupervised!), help them make friends with animals, and show them that we, too, love to play outside.”

So, go take a hike! Get outdoors, HHLT has lots of options for you right here in town, and the Great Maine Outdoor Weekend offers dozens of free events from February 8-15. Let kids go unchaperoned – no agenda, no checklists, QR codes or iBird apps.

Just go, get out there, feel the vastness of the landscape, and your innate connection to it. Feel your pulse rate slowing, your smile broadening, and your heart opening to a passionate love of life and of all that is alive.

January 2019