How to boost your mental health by connecting with the outdoors

By Judith Sadora, M.A, LMFT

As an Afro-Haitian American Queer women who has been on the journey back to Self in intentional ways for about ten years now,  I could go as far to say my journey started before I entered this world. Through my own healing in nature, journey in becoming a mental health therapist and the community I surround myself with, I have been so blessed to feel a return back to Self  and a continual need of exploration of that reclamation.

The journey

My journey became intentional the moment I decided to build and cultivate a relationship with the natural world around me. So much so that I became a mental health practitioner and began working with youth and young adults of color out in nature. I committed to the journey of learning and applying liberative forms of therapy and the way we commune with nature. It has burned a passion in me to converse, educate and teach others the immediate healing properties we Black and Brown folks can experience out in nature. My connection to Self identity and my heritage through nature informs my work as an integrative and liberation-focused practitioner and doctoral student. 

Being out in Nature has become increasingly known for its benefits in multiple ways regarding mental, emotional and physical health. Research continues to show that one’s connection to the outdoors has the ability to decrease depression, anxiety and increase a sense of resiliency, efficacy and interconnectedness. The stories and narratives of those who engage with nature share similar themes related to nature being a growth-oriented environment that is both nonjudgmental and evokes wholeness. It is also seen as a place that challenges, confronts and questions one’s limited perceptions. Nature is used by mental health professionals who have seen first-hand the role of nature in a person’s life influencing their therapeutic process. Nature also has the ability to provide people the experience of expansiveness in regards to how they view life and their interconnectedness towards a sense of belonging.

Cultural representation in the outdoors

The gap that is so often identified in the world of research and the outdoors is cultural representation and how it impacts the mental health of those who participate in the outdoors as people of color. The movement towards diversifying the outdoors and lifestyles similar to Van Life has been a continual social justice movement, but not just for the sake of representation. Racial identity/cultural development is the psychological implication of a person’s racial-group membership. It is the way one person sees and views themselves individually and collectively. Narratives in the Van Life community share the hardships faced on the road related to isolation and loneliness, especially due to Covid-19. Although being on the road has a number of great mental health benefits correlated to the disconnection to nomadic living, the experience can also impact those who hold diverse identities that are not represented by the “dominant culture”. In a community that is predominantly white, people of color may feel a higher sense of isolation and disconnection as it relates to their own racial identity development within the community. 

Let’s look at Black, Indigenous and other People of Color’s traditional ways, pre-dating the colonial era, of communing with nature and or living a minimalist lifestyle similar to what we see in Van Life. So much of their lifestyle and connection to nature was both individually and collectively rooted in ancestral practices that allowed them to feel a sense of interconnectedness to their natural world that supported their racial and cultural identities. There is a rupture in connection to identity and ancestral information among people of color today due to the trauma of colonization and the violent displacement of different communities. This rupture in identity severs the connection People of Color have to centuries of traditions, practices, empowering concepts, stories and more. Thankfully, there have been leaders and organizations dedicated to bringing healing in this area of disconnection to identity. As we grow in reclaiming our identity and what it means for us as People of Color in the outdoors, we indirectly increase a sense of self and authentic beingness that impacts our mental health. Research shows that “those who move further along in their racial identity development demonstrate a better understanding of and resistance to White standards and values”

Why should BIPOC spend time in the outdoors

Identifying the daily practices you engage in on the road and out in nature that resemble or connect with your ancestors or cultural practices may increase a sense of belonging and identity reclamation. It is both spiritual and relational which has shown to increase one’s emotional and mental health in the face of hardships. Reflect on how intentional you are with your everyday activities and practices? Have you identified the meaning behind what you do and how it connects to what you know about your own racial identity? Are there any daily practices you have that are connected to your sense of identity? If you haven’t thought much about your own racial identity and how it shows up in the way you engage with Self or others on the road and in nature, what’s stopping you? 

Thinking about identity, especially as it relates to ancestry can be triggering, overwhelming, and traumatic for some due to family of origin trauma and/or historical trauma related to oppression and racism. Please note that if you have experienced severe trauma related to abuse and/or neglect, be sure to consult a therapist and/or a known and trusted Shaman/healer for support.  In the day of Covid-19, many therapists have moved to online therapy making it more accessible and safer for people.

Here are a few steps you can take to meet yourself exactly where you are at with compassion and grace:

  1. Journal or reflect on the feelings that come up when you think about your racial identity and ancestral background? Notice how that shows up in your body and engage/identify any movement practices that have been helpful for emotional regulation (i.e., walk in nature, meditation, deep breathing, gardening, dance, etc.) 
  2. Identify one to three people in your life (family, friends or partners) that have been safe emotional people for you and share your journal reflections. We call this your “village”, which are people that are a part of your inner circle and offer a sense of community that is transformative to your growth. 
  3. If you have access to family members, DNA ancestral services, and/or family stories that were told to you growing up, to learn more about your ancestral history, their traditions and practices in nature and minimalist living, identify what those practices are and engage in them with the intention of honoring and celebrating parts of your identity. 
  4. Remember to lean into the both/and perspective, meaning you can identify a practice of your ancestral history and integrate it with your own modern-day practices that bring you meaning on the road or out in nature. 
  5. Find or start your own identity circle community with other vanlifers of color who share in the same healing aspects of identity reclamation. 

My intention behind these prompts is to help you explore your own racial identity development and help you connect to the natural world in a deeper way that helps you connect to those that came before you. Our ancestors and their stories can be found in all the elements around us and my wish is that we feel a collective interconnectedness to Self through the support of our ancestors’ spirit found within the natural world.

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