Finding Solace in Nature

by: EJ on 11/10/2017

Stephanie Westlund, author of Field Exercises: How Veterans Are Healing Themselves through Farming and Outdoor Activities, has been working with US and Canadian Armed Forces Veterans for several years.  In this guest post, she shares how veterans and others have been suffering from post-traumatic stress for centuries, how our understanding of this stress has evolved and how veterans today are at the forefront of bringing nature-based care into the mainstream in North America.

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For the last seven years, I’ve been speaking with and listening to US or Canadian Armed Forces Veterans who suffer from service-related stress injuries and are taking their personal healing into their own hands through connecting with nature. After each conversation, I always come away humbled by their experiences and wisdom, and inspired by their unrelenting desire to serve their communities and their courage and resolve to move through pain toward recovery.

 Understanding Stress Injuries
 
When a soldier becomes a civilian, it is always a time of transition and soul searching. All who serve in the military are changed by that experience. But some struggle more than others with the transition due to injuries suffered during their service. Many of the veterans I’ve spoken with struggle with invisible injuries such as post-traumatic stress.

Most people may not be aware that Canada has passed an ominous milestone – more serving soldiers have died by suicide than died during Canada’s participation in the conflict in Afghanistan. The US passed this milestone several years ago. And as Canadian Lieutenant-General (retd) Romeo Dallaire has commented, suicide “is the extreme expression of the stress and this injury.”
 
Yet many civilians have difficulty understanding post-traumatic stress. Quite recently, I was asked, “Is PTSD real?”
 
Yes, it’s real.
 
In fact, the invisible wounds and anxiety that can arise from combat stress have been known and understood for thousands of years. In recent times, various terminologies have been applied: estar roto, which means “to be broken” (17th century Spanish doctors), soldier’s heart (US Civil War), shell shock (World War I), combat fatigue and battle fatigue (World War II), and post-Vietnam syndrome (Vietnam War). Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as a syndrome undeniably related to combat exposure, was officially added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980.

PTSD affects not only combat soldiers and veterans but also other first responders, and civilians too. It can affect those subjected to sexual and domestic violence, political violence and terror, and those who have lived through a natural disaster and complex humanitarian emergencies, amongst other traumatic events.
 
However, there is growing debate over the term "disorder." Many of the veterans I’ve spoken with object to it, because they consider their experiences of stress and distress to be an appropriate response to the trauma and violence they have experienced and in which they have participated. As Iraq war veteran Nathan Lewis told me, “There’s no disorder in the condition. It’s your natural body and soul’s reaction to a very brutal and unjust war.”

Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay has suggested either "psychological injury" or "moral injury" as substitute terms. And the Canadian Forces now uses the term "operational stress injury " (OSI) to describe “any persistent psychological difficulty resulting from operational duties performed while serving.”
 
The term “injury” is helpful because it reminds us that even though they are mostly invisible to outsiders, stress injuries are real and result from traumatic experiences beyond the sufferer’s control.

Nature Contact for Veterans

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Increasingly, veterans are talking about the ways that connecting with nature complements traditional treatments for stress injuries such as medication and therapy. This can include farming, gardening, hiking, fishing or working with animals, amongst other activities.
 
Former US Marine and veteran Christopher Brown, who is now the Director of Growing Veterans, told me about his own experiences with gardening: “Each year the garden’s gotten better. I’ve been able to produce more food out of it. And each year I’ve been feeling better as far as my PTSD symptoms go, too.”
 
Meanwhile, former Canadian peacekeeper and veteran Christian McEachern told me that after years of counseling and medication through the veteran side of the military system, it was as he sat on the banks of the Columbia River that he finally felt “at peace with life for a moment.” He said he “realized that this was a gap that could be filled, and maybe it would be helpful for other veterans to be able to sit here on the river bank, too.”
 
In fact, veterans today are at the forefront of bringing nature-based care into the mainstream in North America – many have individually come to the realization that nature contact is helping them, and they want to bring this approach to other veterans as well as share their experiences more widely with the civilian population.
 
And there is a growing body of research about the benefits of nature contact that supports what these veterans are describing. While much of the research has occurred with other mental health populations, it is demonstrating convincing (and measurable) results, such as lowered blood pressure during nature walks, lower stress hormone (cortisol) levels amongst gardeners , and bacteria in the soil that triggers the brain to produce serotonin.
 

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Christian McEachern and his rescue horse Charme (Photo by Stephanie Westlund)

Many researchers around the world have begun investigating the effects of nature-based activities specifically for veterans. For example, researchers are looking at the benefits of fishing for veterans (University of Essex), healing gardens for veterans (University of Copenhagen), multi-day camping and hiking trips for veterans (University of Michigan), Equine-Assisted  Learning for veterans (University of Saskatchewan) and sailing for veterans (University of Haifa and Bar Ilan University).
 
Paying attention to the experiences and stories of veterans who describe finding paths through suffering and despair by connecting with nature can teach us as civilians about life, service to the broader community, and the courage to move through pain toward recovery. It also reminds us of the importance of the human-nature relationship. Veterans’ stories reveal that connecting into life matters, and that nature is not just a backdrop for health and healing activities, but rather a necessary part of the experience.

At Memorial and Remembrance Day celebrations this weekend, include in your thoughts those working to bring nature-based care into the mainstream - and take time to pause to absorb some of the goodness of the natural world.

 

 

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