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The Overwhelming Connection Between Depression, Anxiety and Time in Nature

Point to Ponder:

Are you spending enough time outside?

One of the things I look forward to this time of year are the migrating Monarch butterflies. In case you didn’t know, the Monarch butterfly is iGnite’s mascot and in mid to late September and early October she makes her annual migration journey to Mexico. Like all life, I find her journey miraculous and inspiring. Weighing all of .5 grams, she flies at an average speed of 6 miles per hour and covers between 25 to 100 miles per day. By finding the right air currents, some monarchs have been know to soar as many as 200 miles in a day. Depending on where she begins, her total migration journey can be as many as 3000 miles (from Canada to Mexico). The monarch makes this lengthy trek because she knows it’s an absolute must for survival and if she doesn’t migrate, she’ll freeze and die. Even more miraculous, did you know that if you raised a Monarch butterfly and released her now, very often she’d automatically fly south? She instinctively knows what to do and where to go. As humans, we do too, but the more time we spend indoors, the further we drift in an increasingly unhealthy direction, and the harder it becomes to know the direction we were created to move in.

In last week’s journal I referenced a book I recently read called, “Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions.” Chapter 11 focuses on the correlation between a disconnection from nature and its direct relationship to depression and anxiety. The author, Johann Hari, sites biologist E.O. Wilson (one of the most important people in his field in the twentieth century) who contends that all humans have a natural sense of something called “biophilia”. This is an innate love for the landscapes in which humans have lived and for the natural web of life that surrounds us and makes our existence possible.

Furthermore, the book goes on to site that for over a century of observing animals in captivity, when they are deprived of their natural habitat, they will often develop systems that look like extreme forms of despair. Parrots will rip their own feathers out. Horses will start unstoppably swaying. Elephants will start to grind their tusks—their source of strength and pride in the wild—against the walls of their cells until they are gnarled stumps. Some elephants in captivity are so traumatized they sleep upright for years, moving their bodies neurotically the whole time.

Per my own recent and spontaneous study, I witnessed this with our pet bearded dragon. Despite having a heat lamp and an ultraviolet light to mimic natural sunlight, giving her a Vitamin D supplement, and taking her out of her terrarium daily, over the past few months she hasn’t had much of an appetite, hasn’t had regular bowel movements, is lethargic, and at times, I thought she was dead. I’m a reptile rookie, so maybe this is part of their cycle, but over the past two weeks and for hours at a time I began putting her on our back patio so she can get real sunlight, fresh air, and roam around. The result—she’s a transformed animal! She’s eating, having daily bowel movements, is alert and active again. I don’t think this is coincidence as Mother Nature has a profound affect on all living beings!

By honing in on the relationship between depression, anxiety and time spent outdoors, what I’m not intending to do is minimize the many serious and real causes of depression and anxiety but instead my purpose is to make the case that time outdoors/in nature is an essential ingredient in the formula for fighting depression and anxiety, and experiencing optional health. I don’t find it ironic that with the advancements in technology: the internet, social media, and the increase in screen time-- all of the negative distractions that continue to prevent us from spending time outdoors and in the natural world parallel the increase in depression, anxiety and loneliness. In fact, according to an article published by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies titled: "U.S. Study Shows Widening Disconnect with Nature, and Potential Solutions”, sites a study conducted by the public relations and marketing firm DJ Case and Associates in conjunction with state and federal wildlife and park agencies and finds that: “It is increasingly normal to spend little time outside. The core premise of the recommendations is that connection to nature is not a dispensable amenity, but rather is essential to the health, economic prosperity, quality of life, and social well-being of all Americans.”

Earlier I referenced a monarch raised in captivity would most often intrinsically fly south upon being released. Well, there’s more to that. Due to the shortage of monarch butterflies and the need to increase their population, many people have purchased commercial monarchs and raised them indoors, and/or purchased commercial monarchs and raised them outdoors. Much like our bearded dragon, the commercial indoor monarchs live in a controlled and protected environment-no threat of predators and by all practical purposes, the monarch should thrive and when released should fly south! However, according a recent study in June, the University of Chicago found that when released, neither of the commercial monarchs raised outside or inside flew south. Some individual Monarchs did fly pointing south, but but as a group (a bevy) they did not collectively fly predominantly in a southward direction. What this suggests is that captive breeding disrupts the monarch's famous annual migratory behavior. The recommendation: buying monarchs to raise and release doesn't contribute to the migratory population, and raising them indoors isn't helpful either. If you want to grow milkweed in your garden and raise monarchs you find around your house, just don't take them inside. If you keep them outdoors, they should be totally fine.

Just as biologist E.O. Wilson said, "Almost all animals get distressed if they are deprived of the kinds of landscape that they evolved and lived in. A frog can live on land—it’ll just be miserable as hell and give up.”

Sadly, I’d say that by-in-large we are a distressed society because one of the things we’re choosing is the distraction of technology over time outside/in nature and meaningful connection with people (more on connection next week). Whether it be an insect, bird, fish, reptile, monkey, or us/human beings- we are all animals and none are intended to be held in captivity. Our bodies were intended to spend time outdoors and move, and the best news and difference between us and the other animals is that we have free will! Everyday we get to choose how we want to live: technology-raised humans cooped up indoors and isolated with heads buried in technology or free-range grass fed humans enjoying the natural sunlight and the many sights and sounds of the great outdoors!


Action Items

Spend at least one hour outside everyday this week and be on the look out for Monarch Butterflies. If you can spend more, go for it! For every extra minute you spend outside, the better you'll feel!


Weekly Prayer

Gracious God, thank you for creating nature and thank you for creating us. Thank you for giving us free will. Fill us with Your wisdom so we can spend our time wisely on things that matter most. Help us to discipline ourselves so that when given the choice, we turn towards what is real and life giving: You and Your natural creations. Amen


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