Can mindfulness in nature help with ADHD?

Richard Louv, who suggests that many of us suffer from ‘Nature-Deficit Disorder’, believes that there’s a link between how kids are raised and ‘attention deficit hyperactivity disorder’ (ADHD). There’s some evidence to support his suggestion. Research suggests that every hour of daily TV watched by preschoolers increased their likelihood of developing symptoms of attention deficit disorders by 10 percent (Christakis et al, 2004).

I’ve written elsewhere about my distrust of psychiatric diagnosis, but there’s no question that increasing numbers of children are experiencing impulsivity, hyperactivity, lack of focus, low self-esteem and aggressive behavior: The diagnosis of children with ADHD increased from 7.8% in 2003 to 11.0% in 2011-12 (US data).

shadow of boy on seascape

Attention overload?

Nature connection seems to help; whether kids play indoors or out has a significant impact on ADHD. Researchers from the University of Illinois found that “children who played in windowless indoor settings had significantly more severe symptoms than children who played in grassy outdoor spaces”. The authors conclude that “contact with nature is systematically related to lessened attention deficit symptoms” (Taylor et al., 2001).

The University of Illinois research was inspired by Attention Restoration Theory, as developed by environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989). Attention Restoration Theory proposes that natural phenomena like birdsong, trees, or the gentle sound of a stream are restorative because they give our thinking minds time to rest.

Mindfulness is also useful for alleviating the symptoms associated with ADHD. Psychiatrist Lidia Zylowska led the first study of how mindfulness training might help with ADHD and I’ve found her book on this subject useful in my client work (Zylowska, 2012). Recent research has supported her initial findings, concluding that mindfulness meditation “is efficacious in reducing symptom load in adult ADHD” (Hoxhaj et al., 2018).

Given that both mindfulness and nature connection have been shown to help with ADHD, I’m drawn to wonder what might happen if we combined the two. Crucially, this isn’t just adding one to the other: I’ve argued elsewhere that practicing mindfulness in nature, as compared to indoors, creates a synergy between two powerful sources of healing (Harris, 2016). To my knowledge, no-one is pursing this avenue of research so I’m putting it out there in the hopes that I can attract some interest. Watch this space!

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The Wilderness Effect

Ecopsychologist Rob Greenway used to guide people on wilderness treks and after years of research concluded that “civilization is only four days deep” (Greenway, 1995). When people go on long treks in the wilderness they start out enthusiastic: They’re feeling excited and looking forward to the coming adventure. But after a couple of days of hard walking, most begin to get uncomfortable. It’s not just aching muscles that are the problem; people start to miss the familiar civilized world that they’re habituated to. “There’s no fricking phone signal out here!” “When do we get to have shower?” “Damn, it’s quiet …”

But something profound happens after about 72 hours of being in the wilderness. Rob found that almost everyone experienced “an increased sense of aliveness” and “feelings of expansion or reconnection”. Rob calls this phenomena “the wilderness effect” and it’s one of the best established theories in ecopsychology.

I was hugely excited when I first read about the wilderness effect. It seemed to offer a powerful way to reconnect people with nature, and maybe transform our relationship to the world. My excitement was short lived however. The effect Rob had observed happened on extended trips into the American wilderness, so there’s no way to bring it to the millions who yearn for it.

But years later I had an experience that opened my eyes to another possibility. I was living on a road protest site and while it was far from being pristine wilderness, life there slowly deepened my connection to nature. Could it be that something like the wilderness effect happens when we spend a lot of quality time in urban nature?

A camp fire in the woods

Life in the woods

The short answer is yes; ecopsychologists generally agree that “simply spending meaningful time communing with nature” is beneficial (Shaw, 2006) and the full-on wilderness effect is a difference of degree rather than a difference in kind. I’ve written about this in detail elsewhere and I’ll be developing these thoughts in later posts, but for now I’ll close with a quote from Jim Hindle. Jim lived amongst the trees at the Newbury protest site and beautifully describes how his awareness was transformed by that experience:

“I became accustomed to the sound of the wind in the trees at all times. It wasn’t a thing I necessarily listened to, but the silence that fell whenever I stepped inside a building was eerie and disquietening. … It was like being connected to a great river, the source of all life … and years of separation between us and the Land were falling away like an old skin”
(Hindle, 2006).

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The Future of Ecotherapy

My ecotherapy work is featured in the Winter issue of JUNO magazine and the interviewer raises an interesting question: Why isn’t therapy in nature more widespread?

Ecotherapy sounds very novel, but it isn’t really. Doing walk and talk therapy isn’t new: Freud walked though the streets of Leyden with Mahler during a very effective session of psychoanalysis. Doing therapeutic work in nature isn’t a recent invention either. The Renaissance medical pioneer Paracelsus believed that “The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician”, while Florence Nightingale noted the therapeutic effects of nature in her Notes on Nursing (1863).

Although recognition of the healing effects of nature isn’t especially new, researching into its efficacy is. Evidenced based practice is increasingly in demand, which is partly why Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is commonly recommended by the National Health Service (NHS). On that basis, ecotherapy should be more widespread, as there’s extensive evidence showing that it works. I’ve written a summary of the evidence for ecotherapy and the conclusion is clear; therapy in nature is an effective treatment for a wide range of mental health problems.

Ecotherapist and client walking in nature

Walking the path to healing

Given that ecotherapy isn’t especially novel and is backed by robust evidence of its effectiveness, why isn’t it available on the NHS? I think the answer is primarily about modern culture. CBT fits into the culture of the NHS perfectly because it’s something you can quite literally do ‘by the book’; just follow the CBT manual and tick the boxes as you go. Ecotherapy doesn’t work like that; it’s a dynamic interaction that involves the client, the therapist and an unpredictable natural space.

However, some therapists – including me – are developing ways to deliver ecotherapy in a way that the NHS might find more acceptable. The healing power of nature can effectively be harnessed in a group therapy session and that has the added advantage of social interaction. Working with a group of people rather then one-to-one also cuts the cost, which means that more people can be helped sooner. If we continue to apply the research and develop proven, cost effective approaches, ecotherapy could be an approach whose time has finally come.









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’Tis the Season for Holiday Anxiety

I’m delighted to host a guest post by Jennifer Scott, a life coach who’s a passionate advocate for mental health and wellbeing. Jennifer has personal experience of anxiety and depression so her suggestions for getting though Christmas and New Year are especially valuable.

’Tis the Season for Holiday Anxiety

The holiday season can be chaotic for everyone, but busy schedules packed with festivities, friends, and family present additional challenges for those who deal with anxiety. Here are some tips and tactics for managing your mood while still celebrating the season.

Try sticking to your regular routine as much as possible. While travel, parties, family dinners, and even time away from work can make that more difficult during the holiday season, simple rituals such as going to bed around the same time every night, doing a brief morning meditation session after waking, or writing in your journal each day can be even more critical to managing your anxiety this time of year.

Setting realistic expectations can go a long way toward making the holidays less stressful. It’s inevitable that things won’t go exactly as you planned, whether it’s at the office party or the turkey-and-trimmings dinner with your in-laws. Anticipating those temporary detours will help keep anxiety from throwing you completely off track.

Identifying specific situations that increase anxiety can also help make the holidays less hectic. For instance, if travelling stresses you out, pre-plan as much as possible in order to avoid chaos. This might include booking a flight early in the morning, when the airport will be less crowded, or reserving an aisle seat so you can easily get up and walk around a bit during your flight or train journey. This will work to reduce feelings of claustrophobia or other anxiety-related issues, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

Busy street at Christmas time

The holiday season can be chaotic

While anxiety or depression shouldn’t prompt you to avoid festive events altogether, it’s okay to turn down some invitations. For example, if trying to choose the perfect gifts or braving manic malls is an annual anxiety inducer for you, it’s perfectly acceptable to turn down a shopping date with friends or family in favor of shopping online or opting for gift cards. Trimming some traditions will also help you control your calendar to make time for self-care during the season.

Seasonal self-care could include scheduling a solo massage, taking half an hour at the end of each busy day to curl up with a novel, moderating holiday treats with weekend food prep sessions that help you stick to healthy eating habits on most days, or incorporating exercise into your calendar. While it might not be practical to enrol in a morning boot camp class at your local gym during the holiday season, simply making time for daily walks alone, with a friend, or with a furry family member can increase your brain and body’s release of serotonin and endorphins, two mood-boosting chemicals.

And studies show spending time with a dog also increases levels of oxytocin — a hormone that helps fight stress, boosts relaxation, and increases the desire to create social bonds — for animals and humans alike, according to The Washington Post. So it’s no wonder hospitals, nursing homes, and other institutions are increasingly employing four-legged therapists to provide comfort and companionship to patients and residents. And dogs don’t even need special training to help reduce levels of anxiety and depression for their owners. A growing body of research indicates having a furry friend can improve a human’s health in a number of ways.

If you’re feeling isolated, reach out to religious organizations and other groups to create connections in your community. Volunteering your time and effort toward a good cause can provide a sense of purpose and serve as a great mood booster. And if you can’t shake feelings of sadness or anxiety, are having trouble sleeping, or can’t tackle routine tasks, you should seek advice from a health professional if symptoms persist.

For many, anxiety is as much a part of the holiday season as Aunt Carol’s cranberry relish recipe, but taking care of your mental and physical health can help you celebrate the season with joy instead of jitters.




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I’ve recently started using Twitter to put out short and hopefully useful updates about what’s going on. A Tweet is great for passing on a useful link, commenting on a news item or campaigning for better mental health support.

Most recently I’ve:

  • sent to Tweet to my local MP, Ben Bradshaw, asking him to support a new law on the use of force in mental health hospitals;
  • linked to a recent article of mine on how to listen to the wisdom of the body;
  • posted a link to my new video about managing anger and anxiety, and
  • passed on interesting articles about CBT and how to stay happy!

You can follow me @dradrianharris

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The Intuitive Therapist

If you’ve ever watched a filmed therapy session or heard Susie Orbach’s In Therapy, it might seem like there’s not much going on. The client says something and then the therapist says something. What you can’t sense, unless you’ve been there, is the deeper process going on throughout the session. As a therapist I want to be 100% present in the moment and sensitive to every nuance of our complex interaction. I also want to be aware of everything the client has ever said to me, how they might be feeling and how I’m feeling. I need to consider if, based on half a dozen theories of therapy, there’s any pattern in all that. If there is a significant pattern, I need to decide when and how to say so.

When I was training to be a therapist I despaired of ever being able to process all that and stay present with the client. I was so busy thinking about what they’d just said that I kept missing something crucial! It seemed impossibly hard. And I was right; trying to consciously think through the complexity and depth of therapy is impossible.

Uluru sunset

Most of the vast bulk of Uluru lies below ground

I’d assumed that I had to think everything through consciously, but actually about 95% of our cognitive processing happens in the other than conscious mind (Thrift, 2000). I talk about this a lot in my PhD thesis on embodied knowing, but it took me a while to appreciate how this happens in therapy. In therapy – and in everyday life – my “body senses the whole situation” (Gendlin, 1992). The wisdom of the body draws on sensory perceptions, emotions, memories, past experience and much more to decide what to do next. It’s a massive understatement to say that “your body knows much that you don’t know” (Gendlin, 1981).

Malcolm Gladwell talks about this “power of thinking without thinking” in Blink (2005). The book is full of wonderful stories about people who know intuitively what’s going on in very complex situations. There’s the art expert who can unerringly sense a fake but can’t tell you how, and a fire chief who’s gut feeling saved his entire crew from disaster. In each case the ability to correctly intuit what to do emerges from a powerful embodied knowing that’s been developed through training and experience.

In a typical therapy session I’m not constantly pondering what the client had just said: My focus is on staying present. Meanwhile my embodied mind – which has a huge range of input and a vast capacity to process that input – does the work. Drawing on this embodied wisdom is the essence of Focusing Orientated Therapy.






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The Irrational Human

What – if anything – sets humans apart from other animals? I’ve discussed this before and concluded that there really isn’t any significant difference at all; we are simply hairless apes. (See Becoming Animal). But an article by anthropologist Jonathan Marks has made me think again. His proposal is radical: it’s not reason that sets us apart from other animals; it’s the power of irrational thought.

Compared to other species we’ve studied, humans are pretty good at rational thought and rationality has been held in high esteem in the West from at least Aristotle. But Jonathan concludes that humans “evolved to be at least as non-rational as rational” and gives some delightful examples. In the 1920’s the anthropologist Margaret Mead constructed a IQ test for Samoans that asked them to choose the best path from point A to point B. Her rational ethnocentric assumption was that the best path meant the shortest path, but her Samoan respondents chose the prettiest route.

More recent research in anthropology, psychology and neuroscience provide extensive evidence against Aristotle’s belief that humans are rational animals. Dan Ariely gives a good overview in Predictably Irrational, while David Graeber and Daniel McFadden make mincemeat of the nonsense that is economic consumer choice theory.

Jonathan Marks takes all this a step further, focusing in on language and culture. The most essential aspect of human thought and language is that “it is rooted fundamentally in the invisible, the imaginary, the non-physical. How is that rational?” Language enables us “to talk about what was, what might be, and what ought to be. It opens up a world of temporality, of possibility, and of morality. … we [can] talk to people that aren’t there, cultivate aesthetics, enter revelatory trances, and discuss possible worlds that are neither part of present experience, nor directly connected to surviving and breeding.” The human mind is “rooted in symbolism and metaphor, rather than in logic and literalism”. To sum up, culture is both irrational and fundamental to being human.

Boucher exhibition poster with graffiti

Our language and culture have created “a make-believe world, a fantasy”, which provides both structure and meaning to our lives. Jonathan notes in passing that “the important stuff in human evolution here is not going on within human brains, but between human brains.” Given that language and culture give meaning to our lives, we might argue that what goes on between between us includes all the important stuff in human existence.

Jonathan’s proposal turns conventional thinking on its head and, if correct, has all kinds of ramifications. I can foresee many debates related to Bodymind Place themes. For example, does Jonathan’s theory present a challenge for rational therapies like CBT? Perhaps. It certainly seems to validate the humanistic forms of psychotherapy and counselling, which are so often engaged with the invisible and the imaginary.












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Racists Anonymous: Is Racism an Addiction?

‘Racists Anonymous’ is an interesting and radical idea. Pastor Ron Buford, who started it, was inspired by ‘Alcoholics Anonymous: “I started thinking in the AA way”, racism is “an addiction. It’s a sickness”.

I was initially really exited by the whole concept: Maybe I could start a Racists Anonymous group in Exeter! I still might, but there are some questions I need to ponder first.

If racism is a sickness, what does that entail about moral responsibility? Can someone admit to being a racist but put it down to having an addiction? Ron is familiar with that criticism: “What I experience from people of color as pushback is that the harm caused by racism is so great, that some people feel the RA approach lets white people off the hook easy. Somebody’s got to suffer. But what if people wanted to change? What if nobody had to suffer? Wouldn’t that be a good thing?” (Paste Magazine).

Ron comes across as a pragmatist: If it helps, let’s just do it. I like that approach, but it leaves other questions unanswered, notably around the increasing tendency to frame personal experience as pathology. While many addiction therapists consider addiction to be a disease, it’s implausible to suggest the same of racism. When Ron describes racism as a “sickness” he may be speaking metaphorically. But given the implied comparison with addiction, I’m not so sure.

Invisiblia podcast

Meanwhile, psychologists Will Cox and Patricia Devine have developed an alternative that is having good results. Their approach frames racism as a habit we learn. They present it as morally neutral, which, although it makes me uncomfortable, is helpful in getting people to engage.

First, we need to accept that pretty much all of us are prejudice against some group or another. If it’s not people of colour, it might be the old, the young or just anyone who’s not like you. But prejudice is insidious and it’s not uncommon to have internalised prejudice against members of your own group. This leads us to the ‘Detect’ phase: Being able to identify prejudiced thoughts arising in your consciousness. Next, ‘Reflect’: without making any judgements about those thoughts, reflect upon why they came to mind. Then ‘Reject’: Substitute those prejudiced thoughts with alternatives.

Neither of these approaches will overcome racism on their own. Racists aren’t born; they are trained, and that training comes from innumerable social cues as well as parental attitudes. We need to be aware of how the media reinforce prejudice – typically though reproducing stereotypes – and challenge it. But working on our own personal prejudice is also vital. Racism isn’t just out there – it’s in here: challenge racism everywhere.

Listen to the Invisibilia podcast, ‘The Culture Inside’, for more on this.

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Rethinking Power, Remaking Connection

Who has power? Political leaders tell us that they have the power and the media frequently reinforce that idea. But we have a choice; we can simply accept that, and hand over our power, or we can take steps to empower ourselves.

 Graffiti on the Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall

I’m co-facilitating a workshop to help people feel more empowered and to understand the power of co-operation and connection. We’ll be drawing on active listening, coaching and, primarily, the work of Joanna Macy.

Joanna Macy is a Buddhist teacher whose Work that Reconnects is sometimes counted as ecopsychology. I’ve used Joanna’s exercises in previous workshops and consider them to be amongst the very best.

We’re running the workshop in Exeter on Saturday, April 29th, from 10 until 2. Find out more book up online.

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Climbing the magic mountain

I had a dream about a remote land where a traveller told tales of his adventures. At the end of the travellers tales, a young boy asked him a question: “How can I climb Mount Ghebo? It’s a magic mountain that changes shape all the time.”

The traveller replied that he didn’t know of this magic mountain, but he did know how to climb it. The boy looked at him with rapt expectation. “Please tell me: How can I climb a mountain that changes shape all the time?”

The traveller smiled. “Just climb one step at a time”, he said.

Mountain at sunset

Aoraki / Mount Cook

Although the traveller’s advice might seem simple, there’s a profundity to it. More importantly, my dream gave me the solution to a challenge I’d been stuck with for weeks.

The wisdom of the unconscious mind is sometimes revealed to conscious awareness in dreams or the hypnagogic state between sleep and waking. As Freud famously noted, dreams are “the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious” (1900). But to some extent that’s how all psychotherapy works. It’s not that the therapist reveals the solution to the client: At some deeper level of understanding the client already knows the way forward, but they can’t access that awareness or perhaps can’t engage with it. The relationship between the client and therapist is widely accepted as being the primary source of healing. This therapeutic relationship can enable the client’s other than conscious mind – which is vast and transpersonal – to access deeper wisdom.

See Focusing and the Cognitive Iceberg for more thoughts on how therapy might work. I touch on dream interpretation in my post on Nightmares, and there’s more about the therapeutic relationship in Beyond relationship? The power of therapy outdoors.

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