Ravenswood Media

Ken Redeker
Ken Redeker
Photo by Rich Lounsbury

Nature Tames My Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

by Ken Redeker

If my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder was a mountain, it would be Mount Everest. The disorder has tortured me since my teenage years in the 1970s, and I have carried it like a backpack full of rocks. My story is different when I am in nature. On a grueling 5 day trek across the Rocky Mountains, my burden was reduced to a handful of pebbles. Moments like these temporarily eradicate my disorder. Several years ago, I had rappelled down a 586-foot deep pit in a Georgia cave, forcing me into a fully present state and extinguishing my OCD. Through physically demanding adventures, I discovered that nature is more effective than medication when treating OCD and depression. In fact the cost of medication is downright depressing. Annually, I spend over $2,000 on medication and therapy. However, I can spend five days in the backcountry of a National Park for under $10. Today researchers are examining the powerful effects that nature has on mental health.

Dr. Zelenski, a clinical psychologist at Carleton University, is currently head of the "Happiness Lab," which examines how our relationship with nature can make us happier individuals. Connections between social behaviors among extroverts and introverts are examined and the effects of environmental psychology. Components of Zelenski's research were inspired by a former student, Elizabeth Nesbit, who wondered if nature directly related to people's happiness. Zelenski says, "There is a lot of evidence out there that suggests that having more green space or natural space even in our urban environment could have a lot of benefit. Nature can restore our attention or self-control."

Zelenski and Nesbit first measured people's connection to nature by asking how it relates to happiness, and how that may correlate with sustainable attitudes and behavior. "We're just starting to pull apart what's important" Zelenski says. "Contact with nature is important to happiness but there are a lot of other things that go into it too," he added.

John ZelenskiJohn Zelenski Rachel HineRachel Hine Jane BodineJane Bodine

Rachel Hine, a researcher specializing in ‘Green Care’ from the University of Essex explained that “People can improve self-esteem and things like depression, and anger after contact with nature.” Hine, along with Professor Jules Pretty and Dr. Jo Barton, have been researching the health benefits of contact with nature through nature based interventions for vulnerable people including those suffering with mental health issues. Hine also works in the field for ‘Care Farming,’ which uses meaningful farming related activities as a component for improving mental and physical health.  Hine stated that “If you’re going to ‘work’ on a farm it feels less like treatment.  It’s easier doing therapy sessions in the wild or when you doing therapy activities in a natural surrounding because it doesn’t feel clinical.”  The results are promising.  Their research shows that Wilderness Therapy and Care Farming have contributed to a significant decrease in depression, fatigue, and stress, and an increase in self-esteem among participants.  

Everglades National Park
My 3-day, solo-trip into the Everglades
© Ken Redeker
Of course, taking people with OCD into the forest can present a unique set of problems unknown to the average camper. Jane Bodine, an OCD therapist in Naperville, Illinois, took several of her clients camping at Blackwell Forest Preserve. "People all came late due to checking rituals, so the first couple activities were delayed then cancelled," she said. However, once everyone became settled, Bodine began to see some success. "It was an invaluable experience. One person lived through her fear of thunder and storms as it rained." she noted. Despite a few surprises and difficulties, Bodine wants to continue the outdoor therapy with hiking and kayaking.

The world's population is quickly approaching 10 billion, and green spaces are vanishing at an alarming rate. According to the World Health Organization, the burden of mental illness is expected to rise significantly over the next 20 years. Green spaces have more value than just being open land, it is a cost effective treatment for mental health. Zelenski says, "It's a long road but I hope through policy, but also through people's individual choices that they will want to do more to protect their natural systems, and by doing that they can make themselves happier too."

In the last thirty years, I have taken just about every drug available for OCD. I still take medication, but it only helps a little. At $60 per month for medication, the solitude of the wilderness is a much better alternative. The rewards of turning to nature as a form of treatment is utterly priceless; a relief to my disorder as much as a relief to my wallet. Nothing works better or faster for me than immersing myself in nature. Perhaps someday my mountainous and rocky disorder will be reduced to nothing more than a shallow sand dune at sea level.

Ravenswood Media is working on a documentary about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder called "Embrace the Fear." Ken Redeker, editor of our newsletter, suffers from OCD and is sharing highlights of his 40 years of living with a severe case of OCD. -- Dave McGowan