Ditch The Pills And Go Outside: Nature Therapy For Veterans

I wasted too many hours wrestling with my PTSD in windowless VA offices under glaring fluorescent lights. The obligatory motivational quotes on the wall were more annoying than inspiring. I was handed pills for this or that out of the VA PTSD pill vending machine. The system appeared designed to trap me in a pharmaceutical merry-go-round. I either slept too much or too little, was too stressed or didn’t care about anything. Going outside in the morning felt like walking out of a movie theater on a summer afternoon shaking off my sleep meds.

After a friend invited me on a trail run, I re-discovered the natural world. A place I spent my childhood and military career in, the great outdoors. After that first run with him, being outside in the sun and hearing nothing but the sound of nature, our footsteps and my gasping breath trying to keep up, I got hooked. I slept better that night than I had all year. The doctors and therapists I saw weren’t welcoming, but nature was. Nature places veterans in the present and doesn’t let us live in the past. It gives us peace from an increasingly loud, annoying, and negative world.  We miss that connectedness we felt in the military, nature reminds us that we still belong to something greater than ourselves.   

Our military careers aren’t spent in air-conditioning with Netflix on in the background, they take place in the great outdoors. Wars are fought on beaches, jungles, deserts, and mountains. Battles are won or lost in the blistering heat or frigid cold. We see the sun rise most days doing physical training, in the field, or deployed. Getting up early is part of the job, we aren’t sleeping in. When we get out of the military, we join the rest of society indoors.  Americans spend a staggering 90% of our time indoors, living vastly different lives than our ancestors. Every year that Americans spend more time inside, depression and obesity rise. We don’t see nature as medicinal yet, but that’s coming. Money casts a dark shadow over the therapy industry because fresh air is free, and Xanax isn’t. In Japan, when the country hit a high suicide rate doctors started prescribing “forest bathing”.  Doctors telling people to just walk trails, get their asses outside, and spend time in nature. Peace can’t be prescribed by a doctor, but it can by mother nature.

When one tree is cut down, it weakens the others around it. It affects the ones closest to it the most but impacts the entire forest.  That’s how I look at suicide, when one veteran takes their life, it hits people closest to them the hardest but weakens us all. After 22 a day we have all felt the pain. But the reverse is also true, when one tree is strengthened, the rest of the forest is as well. All veterans are made more resilient when one of us is empowered. Like a forest is connected, veterans are too. Nature strengthens us, a veteran in nature is a veteran at peace.

Guess the state with the least number of veterans per capita in the US? New Jersey. Now which state has the most veterans per capita?  It’s Alaska. It isn’t a coincidence that New Jersey has the least amount of nature and green spaces, and the last frontier has the most. We’re searching for the healing power of nature without even realizing it. It’s not only high taxes that makes veterans flee places like NYC and New Jersey for Florida. More likely it’s the pull of the sunshine, ocean, and open spaces.  

The more time veterans spend outside, the happier we will be. We live in an increasingly artificial world and everything seems fake. Nature can be a bitch, but it’s as real as can be. Time slows down in nature, a tree grows at its own pace. Albert Einstein speaks of relativity, “put your hand on a hot stove and a minute feels like an hour, sit with a pretty girl for a hour, it feels like a minute.” Nature forces us to pause and appreciate our time, to reset our brains in an over stimulating world. You don’t need to rush off to the woods and live like a hermit, but you’ll have less stress if you do. Connecting with nature is easier than we think, no matter where we are. The key for veteran betterment is the one that takes us out our front door.

Five Outdoor Ideas To Try Today

  • Get sunshine in the morning- it’ll help you sleep at night
  • Go barefoot in the grass, some humans go weeks without their feet touching the earth
  • Get some plants for your living space, bring some life into it
  • Put on nature views on your TV for background noise instead of Netflix

Three Nature IG Accounts To Follow




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