There is something about green on blue that feeds me. Something about leaves filling the sky like stars. And there is something about stars. There is something about open space that gives me space to breathe, that makes the trauma as small as a seashell or a fern, just another part of the ecosystem.
Research shows that nature— what researchers often call “green space” even when it’s blue— is healing for PTSD and helpful for mental wellness, generally. This post will review some of those findings and discuss how they work for trans survivors.
How Nature is Helpful
- Green spaces have been shown to improve biological stress markers, mood, symptoms of PTSD, and self-esteem. Trans survivors are especially likely to face these challenges, and therefore to benefit from exposure to nature.
- Blue spaces (water) are especially helpful.
- Perhaps because of their associations with wild places, trees are more beneficial than grass.
- Exercise in nature is particularly helpful, even just once a week, even for 20 minutes, even for 5 minutes!
- Nonetheless, it is easy to fall into routines where we don’t access the green space around us.
How to Access Nature
It is necessary to acknowledge that green space is not equally available to everyone. Folks in urban environments, those working long hours, those with chronic pain and illness, and those with mobility challenges face additional barriers. Too often, these barriers correlate to economic disparities. Nature should not be a luxury.
Depression itself can be a substantial barrier to getting to the local park, or even leaving bed. In their cruel irony, mental health difficulties can make us feel cut off from the tools we need to get and remain healthier (emotionally, physically, spiritually).
So, as with all self-care, we grow most when we take small steps. Sometimes just opening the door can help me cross the threshold, and stepping onto my stoop can help me walk down the street to the park. Even if there is no park within reach, a single tree can be an anchor, especially if it is well-observed. What creatures live there? Who eats its bark? Can you hear its cicadas in the summer?
There is no need to try to implement some ambitious and rigorous schedule, or go all the way to a national park. The goal is just get outside to somewhere that makes you feel restored and to move your body in a way that feels good while you’re there.
The AllTrails app lists and offers maps of most walking and hiking trails I’ve come across. The map function shows foot paths where Google maps just have blotches of green, and has allowed me to explore my area more safely, calmly, and freely. TrailLink has a directory of wheelchair-accessible trails. Your own city or town may have their own directory of urban parks, and just searching online for parks can be helpful too.
Why Nature is Healing
Like all animals, humans are deeply and innately connected to the natural world. Scholars think that because of our evolutionary history, outdoor spaces offer something deep within us a comfortable, safe “familiarity” and a “psychological respite” from our modern lives.
The beauty of nature also inspires a sense of “awe,” which researchers find is a uniquely effective antidote to emotional pain. In one study, the more awe people felt during white water rafting trips, the greater their reduction in symptoms of PTSD and stress a week later, leading the researcher to call awe the “active ingredient that explains why being in nature is good for us.”
As a poet who trades in awe, I was intrigued by what it has that other emotions don’t. Dictionary.com defines awe as “an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like.” This made me wonder if the awe we feel in nature is uniquely reparative for PTSD because it inspires feelings of powerlessness that are also safe, while trauma leads us to equate powerlessness with danger.
As survivors who are trans, nature is also restorative because it is not binary, even setting aside the many organisms that defy binary biological sex and heterosexual mating and reproductive patterns. Nature offers a space where our own genders can just exist. Alone in the woods, I don’t have to worry about how others perceive my gait, my facial structure, my voice. There is no one there to project their ideas onto my body. There is just my body on the soft Earth.
Wild spaces live apart from social norms and expectations. They remind us of just how invented such gender norms are, how irrelevant they are to our shared past in the lush primordial soup of pre-history.
I wonder if this is also why nature boosts self-esteem, in particular, because it allows us to emerge from under the weight of others’ judgement and expectations into the clarity of verdant colors, warm sun, rich soil.
It is cliché to say nature puts things in perspective. Maybe it is more accurate to say it makes room for things.
As I write this, I am on a writing retreat in the mountains. Each evening I climb to the top of the hill outside the tiny house where I am staying and look out over the sloping fields where the fireflies flicker on like stars, so numerous they make their way later into the loft where I sleep, bumping into the ceiling over my head. I am here to write, as usual, about pain. Big pain. Both my own and the pain of queer ancestors.
As I stand on the hill, I imagine the pain sprawling out over the field like fog, falling from the sky like rain, jumping through the tall grass like the bobcat who met my eyes yesterday or the birds it was hunting. Either way, in the visual language offered by the universe before me, I see the pain passing through, as transient and precious as the seasons rolling on.