Emotional Health

Summer’s Healing Power: Earth, Water, and Light

Ecotherapy is a new kind of psychotherapy that embraces the healing power of the natural world. The basic premise is that by connecting with nature—plants, animals, wind, sun, sky, water, etc.—we experience a spiritual and emotional connection with the world and are able to feel more at peace and grounded.

Grounded is an interesting word, having several meanings here. In the literal sense, nature gives us a connection to the earth itself, the ground. But this word, as an adjective, refers to a state of being well balanced and sensible. An errant pilot or teenager is “grounded” as a way of limiting misbehavior. Being grounded in another sense is generally considered a sign of psychological health and maturity.

Many of the psychological ills that plague us are characterized by feelings of fragility and fragmentation. Grief “tears us apart,” anger makes us “fly off the handle,” and despair causes us to “fall to pieces.”  When experiencing extreme fear, we sometimes feel an almost out-of-body detachment from reality, called depersonalization. When you are under stress people advise you to “pull yourself together.”

Many symptoms of stress and distress involve efforts to master emotions, or soothe feelings of fragmentation. Eating disorders, addictions, and compulsions of many kinds are attempts to overcome the anxiety and emptiness—an inability to hold it together.

The rising popularity of yoga and other spirituality-oriented practices reflect our need for groundedness. Proponents say that yoga provides a sense of inner peace and a connectedness with ourselves and the outer world that is healing. Similarly, mindfulness, broadly defined as being aware of the present moment, has been advocated as a way to feel more grounded. Mindfulness training is used as a therapeutic technique by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while also calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. It derives from Zen philosophy that urges the nonjudgmental observation of one’s feelings and perceptions.

In our culture, we are prone to avoid, block, or soothe painful feelings, but this approach is based on the idea that accepting, rather than fighting feelings, is a better way. In trying to fight or avoid pain, we often make it worse. It leads to debilitating defense mechanisms—denial, projection, displacement, etc.—and destructive self-medicating behaviors and addictions.

Mindfulness is an essential part of the practice of meditation.  Being in a meditative state literally can change your brain wave patterns, measurable by EEG and other techniques. Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun who has written several very popular books about Zen practices, says the mind is like the sky. Your thoughts are the weather—sun, clouds, rain, etc. The view changes dramatically at times but it is always fleeting. This analogy helps us visualize the idea that thoughts can pass through, be observed and experienced, but that patient, non-reactive reflection allows us to see them blow away again.

Chodron reminds us that we are not our thoughts. Thoughts are like passing clouds, and like clouds, we can see things in them that aren’t there. Though we may see a face in a cloud, the next person might not, and in any case, the formation will change as the cloud passes by and dissolves. Though we tend to trust our perceptions, they are often inaccurate or incomplete. Our attention is selective, especially when diverted.

In a famous experiment subjects were asked to watch a basketball game video and count the number of passes made by the team with the white shirts. In the middle of the tape, a man in a gorilla suit passes through, faces the camera, and thumps his chest. He is on screen for a full 9 seconds, yet afterward only half the subjects reported seeing a gorilla.

Feelings are often based on inaccurate perceptions and misinterpretations, too. As humans, we have an innate negativity bias that was probably somewhat protective for our early ancestors. Hunters and gatherers were more likely to survive if they remembered past tragedies and watched out for dangers. The relaxed types who said to themselves, “that tiger that I saw here yesterday is probably gone by now” were less likely to live long enough to pass down their genes to future generations.

Though negativity bias is still somewhat protective in today’s world, it comes at a cost. An employee who nervously checks and rechecks her work for errors is less likely to get in trouble with her boss, but may also be more stressed and less productive overall than a less obsessional person. Also, negativity, once given a seat at the table, tends to hang around, and even affect others. “Negativity sticks to the brain like Velcro, and positivity slides off like Teflon,” writes Nick Hanson, the author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (2009).

Reacting to pain with fear and anxiety, we produce more pain and prolong it. This is very clear in the case of anxiety attacks that sometimes blossom into panic attacks characterized by fear, shallow and rapid breathing, and even accelerated heart rate and chest pain. Reacting to anxiety with the anxious thoughts “something really bad is happening here . . . and I can’t stop it,” usually escalates the situation.

Though the physiological changes are real, interpreting them as a heart attack, as many do, causes more panic. Though it often hard to interrupt a panic attack once it’s in progress, a useful technique is to remind yourself that it is just a feeling, and feelings cannot kill you. Physical pain is a useful sign that something is wrong, but the pain is a sign and not a cause. If you break your leg, the problem is not the pain, though it’s important to treat it. The problem is your leg. That’s what must be healed.

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.