The Nature of Nature Deficit Disorder

What is it and what's the cure?
Gerry Cariou
By Gerry Cariou

Gerry Cariou is the Executive Director of Ontario's Sunset Country.

Last Updated: October 29, 2018

Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher ~William Wordsworth~

Why you need nature - and why it needs you...

Mother Nature - ah, a term that engenders different thoughts and feelings amongst different people. But when you think about it, nature is the one thing that we all have in common. Despite all our technological advancements, the modifications of the earth we make as a species, nature is still far from being under our control. In fact, we have no more real control of nature today than we did a millennia ago - and that's a good thing. Sadly, for much of the population - their connection to nature is superficial - a complaint about the weather or the bugs or well, you've likely heard a few comments yourself and in most cases, the comments reflect not our connection with nature, but our disconnection from it.

Sadly, this has significant impacts on our health - both physical and mental - and while there is an easy fix for what ails us here, most people never seem to understand why nature is a part of you and you, a part of it. Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD for short) affects many, if not all of us, at least sometime in our lives. Read on and discover why getting close to nature will bring you to places you never thought possible, how it will give you a new appreciation of the world we live in and help you better understand why people want to protect and preserve nature - now and for future generations.

There's a lot more to this picture than meets the eye - look deep and you'll understand what I mean

What is Nature Deficit Disorder?

Whether you realize it or not, you have an innate connection to the natural world. This applies to someone living on the 50th floor of a condo in Chicago or to a trapper living in a small cabin in the middle of the Boreal. The differences exist in how people are connected and the good news is, no matter where you live, how strong that connection is, well, that's up to you. For those living in concrete jungles - a.k.a. big cities - while you relate to nature in fundamentally different ways than the trapper who lives in the forest does in the end, you are as much a part of the natural world as he is. 

Nature Deficit Disorder is not a new thing, medical doctors, naturopaths, and others who treat people with physical and mental illness have recognized the benefits of being close to nature for quite a while now. It's not a medical diagnosis, rather the phrase was first coined by author Richard Louv in 2005 in his book Last Child in the Woods. As the author notes, "Nature-deficit disorder is not a formal diagnosis, but a way to describe the psychological, physical and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature, particularly for children in their vulnerable developing years. " In the book, Louv identified that humans - and especially children - are spending less time outdoors.

Nature deficit disorder affects everyone - but is most concerning in how it affects children - not this girl though!

Sports is good but so is nature

In some instances, parents seem to prefer their children to be in regimented sports at the expense of "playing outside" and this has, in Louv's opinion, led to major behavioral problems. Louv himself stated that NDD is not meant to be a medical diagnosis rather, it's a description of the human costs of alienation from the natural world. The trend has only accelerated over the past decade with the explosion in the popularity of electronic devices - especially smartphones and tablets. Yet the solution is easy to identify - less digital and more natural - in other words, make your kids play outside!

Nature deficit disorder also affects adults. Those who are under high stress, have anxiety or who feel "cloistered" from living in a big city can benefit from spending some time outdoors. People generally feel as good as their current lot in life allows them to and as someone once said, all work and no play isn't good for you. There are also significant health impacts from a sedentary lifestyle, including weight problems, loneliness, and other typical maladies. If you live in the city and you often feel stressed, there's a reason for it. Your mind and body often send signals to you they need some time away from the daily grind and the best way to spend that time is amongst nature.

In Sunset Country, this is a relatively common sight off the side of the highway. (Photo: Frank Bastone)

How nature deficit disorder affects people

Since Last Child in the Woods was published, others have recognized the effects of NDD. Dr. Cyndi Gilbert, a naturopath, identified 10 Great Reasons To Get Out More Often and many of these relate to one's psychological well-being. For example, did you know that people who live close to nature or who partake in nature-related activities have less anxiety and depression? Nature is, literally, also good for your heart so physical benefits are also a part of it.

Deakin University Australia did an extensive study called Beyond Blue to Green: The benefits of contact with nature for mental health and well-being. Researchers noted many benefits including a finding that contact with nature dramatically reduces stress and that "natural environments promote recovery from stress". The basis of the theory being interaction with nature reduces fear, negative emotions and other maladies related to "every day" responsibilities such as work or family stress. the authors even reference the famous work by Maslow and his "Hierarchy of Needs" where personal gratification and fulfillment are at the top of the pyramid, and that nature is an enabler to achieving what we all crave at times, rest and relaxation. 

Even something as simple as taking 15 minutes to watch the sunset can reduce stress and anxiety!

Ways to reduce the effects of nature deficit disorder

So now that you know what NDD is and how it affects you, the logical question is what can you do to "treat" it? Simply put, make a conscious effort to do something that involves the outdoor world. This can be as simple as:

  • Take a walk in a gentle rain
  • Sit alone beside a small stream for a while
  • If you live near the lake or ocean visit it regularly
  • Wake up early in the morning and hear the birds chirp and sing to welcome the new day

These are only a few suggestions and as you can see, it's not rocket science. For those wanting a deeper immersion then planning a trip/vacation with the outdoors as the core attraction is your ticket to feeling better. In Sunset Country, we do the outdoors on a scale few others do so here are some suggestions we can offer you:

Again, these are only a few suggestions - there are literally hundreds of more things you can do to get better in touch with nature - you'll feel better for it, of that we can assure you!

Sitting along the shoreline of a wilderness lake has restorative powers for both the mind and body

Start planning your communion with nature today by ordering your free copy of our travel guide and map!

Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty. ~Albert Einstein~