Why Go Outside? Benefits of Wilderness Experiences for People with PTSD


“…Using nature as a metaphor, it is possible very quickly to access deeply traumatic events and to work on the most difficult feelings, and the life cycle embodied in nature carries the promise of healing.” – Linden & Grut, 2002

Mountain biking through the Colorado wilderness – cycling through aspen and pine, wildflowers, and the broad sky over rocky crags and sloping valleys – a sense of peace is close at hand. Working your body, focusing on the path ahead, and taking in the sights and sounds of nature, it’s easy to feel your own health, and the health of the amazing natural world that you’re a part of.

woman checked out a map on trail during hikeNature moves in cycles. Trees lose their leaves and grow new ones; flowers bloom and wither; sunlight fades and returns again. All of this is happening all the time, and although lives end and losses happen in nature, all of it occurs within a context of health, wholeness, and aliveness.

Connecting with nature is innately healing. Not just on the level of your mind and your memories of trauma – on all the levels of your whole being.

This article will look at some of the benefits of wilderness experiences for people living with PTSD, including survivors of sexual trauma.

How can nature help us heal?

Overcoming Challenges, Empowering your Body

Survivors of any kind of trauma often experience numbness and dissociation from their bodies. Especially for survivors of sexual trauma, the body is the site of a painful transgression. Traumatic assaults create feelings of helplessness in the body, of having no control.

Doing physical activities, overcoming physical challenges, and learning new skills can help draw awareness back to the body, and create new associations there. While mountain biking or doing other outdoor activities, many survivors begin to feel a greater sense of groundedness, integration, control, competence, and power in relation to their bodies.

Mitten and Dutton (1993, p. 12) write,

“Working in harmony with nature and seeing others do so as well can help a survivor gain positive memories through her body, which was often experienced as a place of pain because of the abuse, and to recover a feeling of power and pride in herself and in her body”

Finding Safety in Nature

Trauma happens when we experience something unbearable. We don’t know how to process that experience, and it gets stored in our bodies and nervous systems, until we feel safe, secure, and relaxed enough to touch those feelings. Then, to process and free ourselves from the traumatic imprint, we learn to gently hold the once unbearable feelings in a greater context of safety and care.

For many people with PTSD, nature provides the ultimate “greater context of safety and care.” Nature is totally non-judgmental; it’s innately healthy and harmonious; and it reminds us of the strength, beauty, and persistence of life. Because of this, nature is often a perfect environment for exploring sensitive issues related to past traumas.

Likewise, playing outside and bonding with others in nature is fun. It’s an opportunity to re-connect with play, excitement, and joy.

Remembering Spiritual Connectedness

Biking or doing anything in nature, there’s little to focus on but your body, the land, and the people you’re with. Being free of the distractions of daily life, it’s easier to enter a state of mindfulness and calmness.  A time-out from everyday stressors gives us the opportunity to relax and reflect.

Nature reminds us of the natural cycles of life, and the sense of wholeness, health, and vastness that exists beyond our everyday lives. This can help put difficult experiences into perspective, and help us reconnect with something greater than ourselves – an immense web of life or Higher Power large enough to hold even our most joyful, and painful, experiences.

Creating Community

Enjoying nature with others, facing challenges, having fun, and learning new skills together creates special bonds and communities that go beyond clinical settings.

Having trusted friends and community traveling alongside you on the path of recovery is an endless blessing.

For so many people – including survivors – getting outside creates opportunities to shift old patterns, feel empowered, have fun, connect with intrinsic health, and build community.

Sacred Cycle supports women recovering from childhood sexual trauma accomplish peace, hope, meaning, connection, and empowerment, by offering funding for therapy as well as mountain bikes, gear, and coaching. Contact us to learn more.


By Myriam Maida, MA


Myriam Maida
 is a psychotherapist, painter and writer living in Boulder, CO. She is a student of creativity, healing, living fully, and promoting peace in this time of global transition.    She holds a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Counseling Psychology from Naropa University. 

References

Dustin, D., Bricker, N., Arave, J., Wall, W., & Wendt, G. (2011). The Promise of River Running as a Therapeutic Medium for Veterans Coping with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Therapeutic Recreation Journal, 45(4), 326-340.

Linden, S. & Grut, J. (2002). The healing fields; Working with psychotherapy and nature to rebuild shattered lives. Published in Association with the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. London: Frances Lincoln.

Mitten, D., & Dutton, R. (1993). Outdoor leadership considerations with women survivors of sexual abuse. Journal of Experiential Education, 16(1), 7-13.