PTSD is an unfortunate reality that faces lots of men and women who serve their country. When it’s time for them to return to civilian life, many will carry a burden that can drastically affect their ability to integrate into and navigate the civilian world.
Whether it stems from direct or indirect combat action, or the duress of stressful work environments, PTSD is still an often stigmatised mental health condition that many will struggle to find effective treatments and coping mechanisms for.
Luckily, emerging treatment options can work in tandem with other evidence-based methods to improve the efficacy of such treatments, augment them, and fill in gaps they might be missing. One such treatment is nature therapy.
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychological condition afflicting individuals who have undergone or observed an immensely distressing or startling incident. Those grappling with PTSD frequently confront an array of symptoms that materialise in response to a particular stimulus or inciting event that serves as a painful reminder of their traumatic experience.
Among military veterans, this affliction can stem from a multitude of factors, including the harrowing nature of combat, the overwhelming burden of responsibilities in day-to-day life, or other distressing encounters. PTSD is a pervasive and incapacitating condition, giving rise to a diverse range of manifestations, such as:
- Intrusive thoughts: PTSD frequently afflicts individuals with relentless and intrusive thoughts that serve as unwelcome reminders of their traumatic experiences, plunging them into a state of feeling like they are reliving the event. These distressing ruminations can be involuntary recollections, vivid flashbacks, or haunting dreams that evoke a sense of realism.
- Avoidance: The anticipation of encountering emotions tied to the traumatic event and the fear of reliving it often compels veterans with PTSD to avoid anything that might trigger memories of their distressing experiences. This avoidance encompasses people, locations, objects, and activities that serve as potential reminders.
- Altered cognition and mood: The emotional and psychological strain imposed by PTSD frequently leads to notable shifts in cognition and mood for those grappling with the condition. They may encounter difficulties in memory retrieval, harbour negative self-perceptions, experience profound guilt stemming from their perceived involvement in the event, lose interest in previously enjoyed activities, battle anxiety and depression, and endure feelings of isolation from social connections.
- Physical symptoms: Similar to other mental conditions, PTSD can manifest in symptoms that cause physical distress. These include headaches, gastrointestinal issues, elevated heart rate, and sweating.
Exploring the healing power of nature therapy for veterans with PTSD
There are many treatment options that veterans and other individuals with PTSD can turn to. Whether they turn to cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, or medications, there’s a range of available remedies to help treat the condition.
However, the way PTSD affects individuals is highly unique to them. As such, it requires a nuanced and customised treatment plan that often involves the use of multiple treatment options. One such option that has been gaining popularity due to its ability to help provide peace and equilibrium to veterans’ lives is nature therapy.
Nature therapy benefits those with PTSD because studies have shown that nature provides humans with a tranquil and calming outlet. This is because it releases stress-reducing hormones such as dopamine and serotonin, which can significantly boost moods. Moreover, since one of the critical components of PTSD is a disconnection from reality and reliving traumatic experiences, having a place that provides this effect can help ground veterans with PTSD into the reality of their surroundings.
Nature therapy encompasses many treatments that share the commonality of occurring in natural environments. These include but are not limited to:
- Wilderness therapy that occurs in settings such as forests or mountains.
- Horticulture therapy that involves gardening and nurturing green spaces.
- Animal-assisted treatment that lets veterans bond with animals for PTSD support.
- Adventure therapy that makes use of activities like hikes, rock climbing, and obstacle courses.
- Guided meditations and mindfulness practices that take place in natural settings as opposed to indoor settings.
- Forest bathing that helps boost the release of stress-reducing hormones in outdoor environments such as hot springs.
- Partaking in traditional, evidence-based treatments like CBT in outdoor settings.
Whether gardening, bird watching, rock climbing, or fishing, nature therapy helps veterans with PTSD because it reduces stress, helps regulate emotions, exposes veterans to physical activity, creates social connections, and grounds individuals in reality.
Moreover, it provides a unique outlet away from the burdens of everyday life for veterans. This allows them to take a break from demands and challenges while tuning into their mind and body. It also helps them enjoy the human connection and sense of camaraderie they had in the military that they may struggle to find or maintain in the civilian world.
It’s important to remember that while nature therapy can be hugely beneficial for veterans with PTSD, it is not a replacement for traditional forms of therapy. However, it can complement these forms of treatment and increase their efficacy, drastically improving the mental and physical well-being of veterans who implement it into their treatment strategy.