Nature Deficit Disorder – How Nature Affects Longevity
As I fly in to LAX I look over the huge megalopolis in which I grew up. The perfect east-west and north-south grid of streets is very familiar. I recognize certain buildings. I can see nicely-groomed parks. I get my bearings from the freeway system, both from the air, and on the ground.
I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles — I was a “city boy.” I didn’t get dirty, play in the mud, or do anything except in a clean sandbox or park. The lawn was clipped. My world was paved. I always wore shoes and had some sort of wheels under me (bicycle, skateboard). I breathed smog a lot. In those days we had “smog alerts” and were told to stay indoors and not exercise. I would go out on my skateboard anyway, and my lungs would burn. I didn’t even get clean air! I was insulated from nature in so many ways.
Today, we are so easily separated from nature. Many things we called “nature” weren’t really wild. We had pets, including chickens, rabbits, and a few mallard ducks. We grew gardens in nice rows, pulling out all the weeds. Indoors, I still don’t have any real plants because they invariably die. Too much water, not enough water, I don’t know! All my “plants” are plastic – but they look so real!
I am grateful that my parents took my siblings and me out to the mountains, the beach, parks, streams, and other natural places at times. Nature is part of who we are. The Earth is part of us. We are part of our Mother Earth. We cannot leave. If we go out into space, off the Earth, we must take a piece of her with us. Our bodies are renewing from the earth all the time. We take in carbon and minerals from plants, which they get from air and soil, and creates oxygen for us to breathe. However, there is more. Our energy comes from the earth, processed from the sun. We are so intricately connected, and yet we try to insulate ourselves from the very thing that brings life. The consequences of this can be devastating.
What is Nature Deficit Disorder?
Children who don’t regularly experience life in a natural environment lose certain abilities. As time goes on children spend more time indoors. Even children who live near forests and mountains are spending more time indoors. The average American child 5-15 years old spends 5-7 hours in front of a screen each day. Moreover, according to the National Institutes of Health increased screen time can increase the risk of:
- Heart disease
- Sleep problems
- Attention problems
These are exactly the issues that comprise “Nature Deficit Disorder” a made-up term to stress the importance for kids to be out in nature. It’s not a real disorder, or a medical diagnosis, rather it is a term to describe the deficiencies children experience when they aren’t outdoors in a natural environment. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, states, “Nature-deficit disorder contributes to a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, conditions of obesity, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses.” Much of this stems from lack of movement, since nature presents opportunities for physical activity. However, there are many other lessons to be learned in nature. In Japan there has been a movement since the 1980s of “forest bathing,” where people go into the forest for hours to days to “take a bath in nature.” The research has indicated many benefits of stress reduction.
Stress causes many problems in children, including obesity, poor mental function, depression, anxiety, OCD, eating disorders, and poor social skills, to name a few. In fact, stress does more damage than poor diet or lack of exercise. By far, stress contributes the most to physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and psychological problems.
For these reasons, children need to experience nature. We cannot understand anything we do not personally experience. A video of “Those Amazing Animals” is not the same as being there and experiencing them. We can see all the pictures, but it isn’t the same as the experience of being there.
Last week my fourteen-year-old son and I went camping overnight. As we walked along the trail, there were clean, perfect two-inch sand pits beside the trail. I wondered what they were, and found there was an insect at the bottom. The larva of the antliondigs a pit as a sand-trap for ants and other bugs. When an ant goes over the edge, it rolls down the hill and cannot crawl out because of the steep walls of sand. The antlion is waiting under the sand at the bottom, and eats the trapped ants. Bugs making sand traps — how amazing is that!
Nature for Mental Health
Nature is our instructor. From plants, to insects, to large mammals, we learn from what they do. Birds taught man to fly, or at least that it was possible. In a process called “biomimicry,” engineers can look at how things are done in nature. They have designed everything from modern conveniences to getting rid of trash. Skyscrapers have been engineered like bamboo.Indeed, much of what we know comes from the infinite variety of nature.
Intelligence comes from testing limits. We test our limits in nature because all nature is set up to test every limit of life – cold, hot, wet, dry, feast, famine. There is no limit that cannot be tested in nature, building our mental abilities. As they develop, children who have more experiences with nature have more intelligence and creativity. Nature provides infinite variability, whereas in man-made areas everything is the same. Another movie with the same plot, another house with three bedrooms, another paved parking lot, another video game, and so forth. There is so much to learn in nature!
In nature we have rocks and trees to climb, which dramatically increases intelligence. Climbing a rock is not the same as climbing stairs or a handicap ramp. Climbing trees requires skills. Every tree is different, every limb is different, there is much more thought that has to go into climbing a tree. We have to test the limb to be sure it won’t break, that it will hold our weight. We need to be looking to the next limb and know if we can stretch to reach it.
Nature for Stress Reduction
At home we can easily get overwhelmed with so much to do, and constant entertainment. The mind and body don’t have time to relax and re-charge. Even when we are “relaxing” at home it is stressful. An unfocused mind is a stressed mind. We need to have focus and attention to prevent our minds from seeking danger by default.
Nature tells us how to relax and avoid stress by keeping the mind focused. The antlion builds a sand trap and waits. The spider spins a web and waits. If you have ever been fishing, you cast in your line, and wait. The quiet time allows us to reflect on our lives, to learn who we are. Quiet focus can take away stress, giving time to think about things. Nature provides time. There is time. The only clock is the sun. While it is day, we can do what we need to do, and at night we let go and relax.
I have many patients who suffer from anxiety and depression because of adrenal fatigue. One cure for adrenal fatigue is to go out in nature without a clock.
- Go to bed with the sun and wake up with the sun
- Eat breakfast in the morning and skip dinner
This will get people on track, making them anabolic (building-up) instead of catabolic (breaking-down). Only thirty minutes per day in nature can help people: