Reflecting on Alaska trip, McCabe on the role of emotions in nature

Natural environments are key for survival. However, nature is vital not only for the basic necessities of life, but for our emotional well-being as well, for our souls.

This summer I went on a nature writing backpacking study abroad trip to Alaska with nine other students and three professors. During much of the trip we were immersed in the Alaskan wilderness. As each day passed without distractions from society, I felt more content and aware.

I could focus on the tasks at hand, such as what I was writing, what dehydrated packet of salty sustenance we would cook for supper or where I should dry my damp hiking clothes. Yes, indoor plumbing was something we all missed, and greasy food was a common topic of conversation when we hiked through the mountainous terrain. However, the more time I spent in nature, the more I realized how much of my life I take for granted and how many distractions are a regular occurance.

I am not the only one who feels an emotional difference in natural environments versus in civilization. Amy Lewis, biology professor at Augustana University, said she notices the change in emotions when surrounded by nature.

“How do I feel when surrounded by nature? At peace, and maybe a little scared, depending on the wildness of the land around me. Both of these things make me feel alive,” Lewis said. “The longer I am there, the more the peace grows and the scariness surrenders to awareness. Emotionally, there is far less stress flowing through my mind in nature versus in cities or towns.”

Senior Will Solberg is also cognizant of the difference in his emotions when in natural settings. He said he believes that being in nature is a uniquely personal experience.

“For me, it represents an area where all sorts of answers lie,” Solberg said. “When I’m way out there, I don’t feel pressured to figure out the questions and then find answers like I might in an urban setting. It’s pretty important to figure out traffic routes or deadlines really quickly, but figuring out the cadence of a waterfall can wait a few hours while I set up camp and prepare a cup of tea.”

For many people, being immersed in natural environments is a healthy way to let out the stresses of everyday life. Nature encourages this feeling.

Solberg is studying a new division of psychology that is working to find the answer to this question. Ecopsychology, according to the International Centre for Ecopsychology, studies the relationship humans have with their natural environments and how this connection can be deepened in hopes that individuals will have more sustainable lifestyles and a greater sense of well-being.

Solberg became interested in this area of study as a freshman at Augustana after reading an article in the Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica Scandinavica about how hiking in the mountains has been found to decrease symptoms of depression.

Ecopsychology was a perfect match with Solberg’s passions due to the difficulties associated with medication and how outdoor activities are effective therapeutic aides.

“Realizing it was a way to combine my love of psychology with my love of nature; that just about sealed my fate,” Solberg said.

One theory of why nature plays a strong role in our emotional well-being is Attention Restoration Theory. This theory hypothesizes that nature can restore the attention humans lose after exerting mental energy, according to A natural setting or simply looking at nature allows the brain to require less energy. This can recover the brain’s full directed attention capacity, a systematic review at the University of Exeter Medical School

“People’s brains have a limited amount of cognitive resources available to them at any given point, and often, the tasks we are faced with overwhelm these resources since it can be hard to dedicate your mind 100% to one thing,” Solberg said. “Nature has the capacity to both directly and indirectly impact our emotional health by lightening the load on our generally heavily taxed mental resources and, indirectly, impact us by giving us a space to be physically active.”

The importance of nature is clear, not only for our physical and mental well-being but for the health of future generations. The responsibility we have for future generations is a vital component to consider when making the decisions of today.

“We owe future generations a world where they can feel the life that exists in nature, rather than just see it in pictures on the internet. A world where it is still possible to experience places without the obvious footprint of humanity,” Lewis said. “It is our responsibility to not mess up the world any more than it is already messed up, and to help repair the damage done by our predecessors. […] People are just one more species in the world, no more or less important than the others. Our only exception is that we have the power to destroy other species on a whim. We need to remember that.”

The choices we make today will impact lives in the future. What can we do now so future generations are able to benefit from the simple pleasure of taking a stroll through the woods?