Wilderness Therapy: How the Secret to Unlocking Mindfulness Is in Your Backyard

Photo: Abel Richards / Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
It’s 59° and sunny in Milwaukee on this beautiful Friday, and what is currently on my mind is spending a few minutes outdoors with coworkers, enjoying the sunshine and a brief walk outside our building.

If you’re like me, you might get great pleasure in spending time outside and in the sun, with friends or on your own. For many of us, heading to a park to hike, ski, or bike on a nearby trail serves as an excellent pastime and allows us to stay fit and healthy on a regular basis.

And for many of us, outdoor recreation and the great outdoors can be so much more than simply a way to spend our free time.

For a little more than four years I have been an avid rock-climber, traveling from state to state on weekends for short trips to Kentucky, Colorado, the Michigan Upper Peninsula, and elsewhere to practice my craft. Climbing has been a source of constant enjoyment for me as it fulfills my needs for community, physical and mental self-improvement, and traveling. Climbing is a sport that has allowed me to make pilgrimages to some of the last vestiges of untouched wilderness in our country, and has enriched my life with invaluable relationships with an eclectic collection of wonderful people.

Photo: Abel Richards / Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

While climbing has been a source of countless good times in my life, it has also served as a way to manage the bad times.

Wilderness therapy in my life

In June 2016, I was taking advantage of my university’s summer break and working as a kayak guide in coastal Norway. One morning I received an entirely unexpected phone call. Minutes later I was reeling in shock at the news that my younger brother had passed away two days prior, and my immediate family, who were spread around the globe, were just learning of his death. After receiving this information and making the necessary phone calls and flight bookings, my next response was to get in my kayak and paddle out into the fjords, away from the city. This instinct to get away from the noise of the city and to practice mindfulness and process my thoughts carried over well past my time in Norway, and has been an irreplaceable fixture in my life in the tumultuous months that followed.

Photo: Abel Richards / Nørva Sound, Norway

Since that time, I have been fortunate enough to make numerous forays into the mountains, forests, and lakes for climbing and kayaking, and I attribute my well-being and good mental health in large part to these trips and excursions. Were it not for the outdoors, I am not sure that I would have navigated the last several months with any success at all, and might be in a much more troubled mental state than I am today.

So just how exactly can one use the outdoors and wilderness therapy as a tool for good mental and physical health? Certainly, many of us don’t have the luxury of kayaking in the Norwegian fjords to clear our heads after tragic events, and many have obligations that prevent them from taking an entire weekend to get out into the wilderness and away from the city. So, what can you do on a daily or weekly basis when you only have a couple hours to spare? Here are a few ideas to make the most of your brief free time, enjoy the fresh air, and improve your mental and physical health with an excursion to the outdoors.

Visit a national, state, or local park.
The National Park Service, your state’s Department of Natural Resources, and your local parks & rec website should all provide comprehensive information on parks, trails, and waterways near you. These are often accessible to the public for free or at a low cost, and they offer opportunities to hike, bike, and camp, among many other things!

Find a new outdoor hobby.
Organizations like REI, local climbing gyms, outdoor sports shops, or local nonprofit environmental and ecology groups often have events dedicated to involving and introducing individuals and families to new activities. Do a Google search to find your nearest outdoor outfitter and find out what classes they offer. You may have the opportunity to experience anything from snowshoe hikes to mountain-biking, at little to no cost!

Photo: Abel Richards / Denali National Park, Alaska

Volunteer for a trail, river, or road clean-up.
Local nonprofits are always looking for volunteers to help clean up rivers and trails for the benefit of the community. These events offer the opportunity to be outside, make new friends, and do good in your community!

Take a walk around the neighborhood.
Only have thirty minutes to spare? No parks or trails near you? Take that extra time on your lunch-break, or between work and picking your child up from school, and walk outside near your workplace or home, without your mobile device! Practice mindfulness with a short walk and see how it can positively affect your brain, among many other healthy side effects! I recommend bringing a friend or relative along with, or simply taking the time to get away from technology and work and focus on the myriad things happening around you.

Photo: Abel Richards / Kontrashibuna Lake, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Start now!
Whether you’re climbing in the Rocky Mountains or playing catch with your pup in the backyard, nature has the capacity to improve your mental health by leaps and bounds. While a walk in the woods is no substitute for counseling, therapy, or quality time with loved ones, it can be an invaluable addition to those things in improving your mental health and your way of life.

So what are you waiting for? Get outside!
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About the Author

“Every individual on this earth deserves to be treated with compassion, understanding, and the right to keep their dignity intact. This can be difficult to honor at times when someone loses control of their behavior, but that’s where Rational Detachment and not taking it personally really kicks in. What has helped me be able to do this well goes back to the first day I was introduced to Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training. I was a participant before becoming a Certified Instructor (and before working for CPI), and over the years I have had so many opportunities to use what I learned way back then. Today, I live the skills automatically. It’s an honor to have been given those skills to live the philosophy of treating others the way I want to be treated.”